Never again. 

I have just eaten my third doughnut. 

The initial gratification that came from biting into sugar-coated pillows of soft, fluffy dough, engulfed by oozing creamy vanilla custard has rapidly disappeared and I’m left with slight nausea and a large helping of self-loathing. 

I vow never to do it again. 

The next Monday I am back in the doughnut shop, swiftly handing my card over the counter, my mouth already watering in anticipation.

I’m sure I’m not alone in this unhealthy routine. 

So, why do so many of us fall foul?

Unfortunately for all of us, willpower is finite. Most of the time, we are acting in response to our current emotional, or visceral, state. Full up, rational Dan can’t recognise or predict how hungry Dan, with his cravings for fried dough, will act. 

In short, we have an Empathy Gap.

Hot-Cold Empathy Gap

What is it?

The work of George Lowenstein has described Hot-Cold and Cold-Hot Empathy Gaps; both being an inability to predict how emotions would impact our behaviours. 

In a Hot-Cold empathy gap, as I have shown, people underestimate the role that their current emotions have on their actions and decision-making; “I will resist the doughnut next time”. 

In a Cold-Hot empathy gap, someone in a rational, logical state has difficulty understanding how they might later behave when their emotions are heightened; “I’d never be tempted by a doughnut on a Monday morning”.

In both cases, we forget that we are human and all of our decisions are impacted by our emotions; whether that’s in our present or future state.

Not only do we have an empathy gap with ourselves, we fail to notice it in others. 

What is it?

Bridging the gap

During our training programmes I show the photo above and it tends to be met with mocking comments on the competence of the workers who seem to have blocked themselves in (I only say seem to as I am making a judgement without incomplete knowledge). 

I reply that we shouldn’t judge or blame anyone that makes an error. 

Sidney Dekker speaks about ‘getting in the tunnel’ with the work; we get so concerned with the task at hand that we forget to look up and take in what’s going on around us. What we need to challenge ourselves to do, for us and others, is to bridge the empathy gap. To look at incidents, not in isolation, but in the context of emotions that may have been experienced. 

It’s only when we understand the emotional state the workers might have been in, through time pressure, stress or fatigue, can we really begin to understand how it made sense for people to act in the way that they did. And for them to block in their van.

Then we can start to change the organisational system, the context and behaviour.

The training we offer with Cleartrack deliberately puts it’s attendees in those visceral, hot states. Usually, learning takes place “cold” and in classrooms when we are at our most rational. We focus on elevating the fight or flight response in order to train more effective responses and routines alongside coping strategies to take us from hot to cold. 

What about the doughnuts?

Similar to my own background in professional sport, training under realistic pressure was the only way to ensure we could perform in the matches. Practicing set plays was useful to understand movement patterns, but it was only when we put it to the test under pressure from other players did we really understand if it would work and if we could make the best decisions for the team.

But what have I done to curb my donut obsession? 

I carry something healthy (or less unhealthy) to eat with me and take a different walking route that avoids the temptation (usually).

Sometimes, I really do just want that doughnut…

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