Like most everyone else, you probably have a few big dreams or secret plans. So why aren't you pursuing them?

Your knee-jerk answer is probably something to do with your circumstances -- the time is not right or your bank account balance isn't big enough. Sometimes that really is the answer. But often it's not. Often the real answer -- and I say this as someone who has totally been there -- is that you're afraid of failure. If you try and then fall flat on your face, won't you be paralyzed by shame and regret? Won't it hurt like hell if you give it your best and your best isn't good enough?

Surprisingly, this is a question that science can actually help answer. And happily, what psychologists have to say on the subject might give you a little more courage to chase your dreams. According to new research, you'd probably handle failure and embarrassment way better than you think you would. So why not just got for it?

Imagined failure is way worse than the real-life kind.

To come to this conclusion, a team of Dutch researchers told study subjects they were going to complete a series of tests in pairs, informing them that if they scored above a certain level, each pair would earn rewards. Half of the participants then predicted how bad they'd feel if they failed. The other half actually took the tests and, whatever their actual performance, were told that they were personally responsible for their team's failure to earn the reward. How bad did they really feel, the researchers then asked them.

How good were the participants at guessing how bad failure would make them feel? In short, pretty terrible. Imagined failure apparently feels way worse than real-life failure.

"Forecasters overestimated how much guilt and shame they thought they would experience (as compared with the actual emotions reported by the experiencers)--this is a classic example of the intensity bias," notes the British Psychological Society Research Digest blog. What's the intensity bias? "A recurring finding in psychology is that people tend to overestimate the strength of their future emotions," explains BPS. It's also probably one of the reasons you're not pursuing your biggest, scariest dreams.

You'll regret actions not taken more than you think.

It's also worth pointing out a separate but relevant line of psychological research here. While science shows that we overestimate how much future failure will sting, research also proves that we underestimate how much we'll regret not doing something. Inaction seems safer in the moment, but in the long run it's what really bums us out, science shows.

"Research by Victoria Medvec, a professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School ... established a connection between time and regret: The more time that has passed since an event, the more likely people are to focus on what they failed to do, rather than what they actually did. 'Lost opportunities linger in our memory longer,' [Neal J. Roese, a professor of marketing at the Kellogg School of Management] puts it," Kellogg Insight reported of the findings.

The bottom line: you're probably overestimating the emotional costs of failure and underestimating those of inertia. Adjust for these biases and think again: Should I start pursuing my dreams today?

Why You Don't Fail When You Fail
Published on: Apr 8, 2016