Intentionitis: What it is and Why it Matters

It’s happened to everyone, and most of us are guilty of it as well: insincerity. The friend you’ll call “next week” when you know you won’t; the potential employer who insists “we’ll be in touch” and isn’t; the brief sexual liaison whose number you take knowing you’ll never use it. If our insincere moments were considered unpardonable sins, we’d all be on the expressway to hell.

“Intentionitis” is different; it is the replacement of action with sincerely-stated intention. The “sincere” part is crucial. With intentionitis, the likelihood of inaction increases in direct proportion to the sincerity with which the intention is expressed. Simply put, the feeling that you meant to do it trumps the reality that you didn’t.

The most obvious example of intentionitis is the guy who doesn’t call back after the first date. He may have known inside that he was never going to call, but kept telling himself he really would pick up the phone tomorrow. By the time you run into him a year later, he tells you with a straight face that he tried calling. It’s a sleight-of-hand thinking designed to fool himself into whatever narrative makes him feel better about not have done the right thing. Overt mendacity has morphed into lying-adjacent. The motto for this kind of ex-post-facto responsibility dodge is “I never meant to hurt you.” (To which I always retort: “I wish you had. Then at least what you did would make sense.”)

Then there’s the perpetually late co-worker who insists at her salary review that she mostly arrived to work on time — remembering, of course, how sincerely she swore to herself every day that she would. There’s the diet embarked upon with such commitment that 12 pounds disappear from the mental scale by the end of the first day, or the swagger at the party adopted by the guy who just purchased a new gym membership. He borrows from an imagined future reality to pay for self-confidence in the present. It would almost be sweet if he weren’t expecting you to be attracted now to the pecs he intends to be sporting in six months.

For anyone struggling to make it in an artistic realm, intentionitis from those who can get you to the next step can be soul-killing. “This is the year we make your movie” feels like a vote of confidence the first time you hear it; the third time you will probably tell them to keep their optimism to themselves, thank you very much. Of course, in this “power of positive thinking” world, an insistence on realism can come off as churlish and ungrateful. People genuinely think they’re being helpful by telling they believe you’ll win an Oscar some day. As if their desire could a) surpass your own, b) somehow makes your dream more likely to happen.

Intentionitis has always been at the core of how politics works, particularly in a democracy. Voters insist they can’t stand to hear one more broken campaign promise — but they are lying. Ask Walter Mondale, who tried blunt honesty in 1984. “Ronald Reagan I will both raise your taxes. The difference is that I’ll tell you I will, and he won’t.” His straight-talk got him defeated in a landslide. But Reagan was smart about how he lied — his successor, not so much. His “Read My Lips: No New Taxes,” pledge — violated of course — probably cost George H.W. Bush the ’92 election.

This care not to be pinned down on specifics either way, i.e. “all options have to be on the table,” incurs the wrath of the electorate who conflates anything they don’t want to hear with untruth. Someone like Hillary Clinton suffered mightily for this. “Calculated” and “careful” were oft-heard adjectives about what came out of her mouth. Her fear of being caught in a lie became perceived as lying itself. It was a classic damned-if-do, damned-if-you don’t dilemma; and damned she was, in the end.

Which brings us to the scary reality of Donald Trump — a man who discovered long ago the secret to successful lying was to believe the lie yourself. This is the perverse talent of Trump — he cons himself along with everybody else. When he insisted over and over again that, “Mexico will pay for the wall,” everyone knew, objectively, that this was not true. But there is no objectivity for Trump. His perception in the moment is his only reality. All counterfactual evidence — including his own words — is co-opted by his current subjective belief. Whether his claim is actually true or he has just decided to treat it as truth doesn’t matter. All that’s required — to his base, at least — is that they buy that he buys it. (So he tweeted at Obama in 2013 not to do in Syria exactly what he has himself just done. In his mind there is no contradiction, because he meant that then and he means this now. All that counts is that both times he meant it sincerely.)

I wish I could diagnose intentionitis in Trump and wash my hands of it, but part of our response to it has got to be taking responsibility for how guilty of it we might be ourselves. Let face it: we have all meant well about meaning well, and then wanted credit for having meant well even when we should have known better than open our mouths in the first place.

Good intentions are perfectly laudable. We are much more likely to do the right thing if we already have the right thing in mind. But sincerity is like cotton candy. It looks good and tastes great — but it melts in your mouth, and too much of it will make you sick. It’s spiritually meaningless if not accompanied by action.

Say what you mean and mean what you say. If you don’t know if you can follow through, then don’t say you can. Hold others accountable. Let them know that doubling down on doubtful promises is far worse than saying nothing at all. Mostly don’t try to put your thumb on the scales of the future by raising the volume on how much you really “mean it.”

Beware the road to hell — it’s said to be paved with something.

Author, "Ink from the Pen," about my 9 months using creativity as the ultimate survival tool behind bars.