Process and Outcome

Questions this post seeks to answer:

  • What is the difference between process and outcome?
  • How can focusing on outcome make change difficult?

Posts related to this post:

Earlier this week, a 25 year old man intentionally drove a van onto the sidewalk in Toronto, killing 10 people and injuring another 15. As investigators have delved into the perpetrator’s past, they found that he was active in an online movement, comprised of people who call themselves “Incels” – “involuntarily celibate.”

The “incel” movement is one that I had heard of before. As I understand it, the people who identify with this movement share a certain ideology, which suggests that certain people who would want to be sexually active are unable to, due to societal problems that favor a particular subset of the population. The incels, then, relegate themselves to secondary citizen status, due to their belief that they are “undesirable,” due to their lack of sexual activity.

The incel community is one that exists primarily online – dedicated websites, online forums (including 4chan), and an incels subreddit provide space for its’ members to share their thoughts and experiences. As with many groups, such forums can easily become “echo chambers” – space where one’s current beliefs are reinforced without threat of being challenged, or even a need for rational evaluation.

In my view, there are numerous problems with the incel worldview; it wouldn’t be difficult to write many pages about some of the psychological underpinnings involved in the development and maintenance of this worldview. Some of my previous posts (Confirmation bias, The self-fulfilling prophecy, Avoidance, Neuroplasticity) can easily be applied here. My purpose in this post, however, is not to analyze the incel worldview (others are already doing this – see here and here for examples). My purpose is to demonstrate one reason why the incel worldview is resistant to change, which I believe is due to a focus on outcome rather than process.

It’s not uncommon for me to hear people talking about wanting to be happier. No big surprise there – I’m a therapist after all. Why would someone see a therapist if they weren’t trying to be happier? But, there’s something interesting that sometimes happens among my clients who are particularly focused on being happy. It’s as if their recognition that they aren’t happy becomes a problem in and of itself, independent of any other problem they might be experiencing that inhibits their happiness. And, unlike other problems that might inhibit happiness, their perception of themselves as unhappy is, perhaps ironically, not something that’s easily changed.

This issue highlights the problem that can sometimes arise when we become too focused on outcomes. If a particular outcome is the only reason we engage in a certain set of behaviors, as soon as our ability to achieve that outcome is threatened, we become less likely to continue to engage in those behaviors. Whether it’s a good grade, a championship season, or a successful sexual relationship – the outcome that is chased becomes more elusive than the one that comes as a byproduct of focusing on the process. Viktor Frankl described this dynamic well in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning:

“Don’t aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it.” (Frankl, 1984).

To be “involuntarily celibate” means to focus on the outcome – one’s level of sexual activity. When the outcome doesn’t happen within an acceptable time period, the incel becomes lonely, angry, and defensive. Their worldview shifts to accommodate their lack of success in the important outcome they’ve identified. Unfortunately, as they become more bitter, guarded, and extreme in their views, a self-fulfilling prophecy is created that then serves as “evidence” to support their beliefs. 

“Incels” would do well to focus on the process of their lives, rather than the outcomes. I believe that, in simply trying to be the people they want to be, prior to all of the damage of loneliness and defensiveness, there’s a high likelihood that virtually any of them could eventually find a fulfilling relationship. A focus on process allows for patience when some outcomes don’t come right away, as there’s increased recognition of the good outcomes that do come along the way.

I think there’s an important lesson here that applies far beyond the incel community. With many of the outcomes we might desire, the act of relinquishing our need to have that particular outcome ironically increases our chances of obtaining it. And we unfortunately can’t “cheat” here – the “letting go” has to be genuine, since the effects it will have are internal. Perhaps journalist Albert Camus said it in the best and most succinct way:

“You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life.”



Frankl, Viktor E. Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984. Print.