The “It Won’t Happen to Me … Until It Did” Syndrome

Disclaimer: By no official psychological means am I claiming that this is an actual ‘syndrome’. Moreover, I am referring to it as that for dramatic effect. 

Nobody thought this would happen. Nobody thought that we would happen to find ourselves amongst a global pandemic. Such absurdity was exclusively known in movies. You know, the blockbuster ones where the hunky dude is somehow the only non-infected being around who finds out that he’s actually not the sole special one but one of many who are trying to save the world — surely you know what I’m talking about? “That would and could not happen to me” you think to yourself while watching this type of film. But funnily enough, it did.  

Coronavirus happened and the world suddenly became the victim of a fat ol’ slap in the face. This global catastrophe functions perfectly as a primo example of what one can describe as the “It Won’t Happen to Me … Until It Did” syndrome. Ah yes, that old chestnut! I am sure that the majority of you are familiar with the term, but if you are not (lucky you), let me set the scene. The “It Won’t Happen to Me … Until It Did” syndrome is a thought process in which an individual takes, that traditionally pre-empts questionable and risky decisions. This is based upon previous successful attempts; these attempts then fail and the consequence becomes a reality. Symptoms of this syndrome can be peer pressure, excessive alcohol consumption, mind altering substance consumption, false beliefs, a big ego, and an overall limited prospect in consequence analysis. But why do we let this syndrome sweep over any ounce of logic and reason that we may previously have held?  

Let me ask you this: how many times have you done something gnarly in which your last thoughts before doing it was, “it wouldn’t happen to me, I’m invincible”. It’s as if the laws of the universe would choose to have an off-day and just somehow not apply to you simply because the perpetrator of the action is you. That’s it, nothing more, nothing less. The only reasoning behind the action itself is because you feel invincible and you think that you are an exception to any logical application. Although one is technically “at risk” of the consequence, this belief is non-existent when the time comes to make the decision. It does just so happen to be that a grand cluster of times when this syndrome comes into play was through our beloved teenage years. Why? Think of this: experience equals lessons learnt, and lessons learnt equal intellectual enlightenment. In your adolescence, the sweet brew of the first taste of freedom, an undeveloped brain, and little life experience all boil together to produce an excessive amount of thoughts that encompass the “it won’t happen to me … until it did” territory.  

Fun fact, this theory that I am presenting has actually been well in the works for some time now. More formally, this ideology is defined as “Egocentrism in Adolescence” and has been developed by David Elkind. Egocentrism in Adolescence is described as the tendency that teenagers have to focus on themselves, and their inability to distinguish the perception of what others think of them from what people actually think in reality. You may be thinking, “okay, this is farfetched, and how does this apply to this so-called “It Won’t Happen to Me … Until It Did” syndrome?”. That wrongly perceived perception that Elkind suggests is, in fact, the epitome of how the “It Won’t Happen to Me … Until It Did” syndrome comes to life. Let’s conceptualise what I am getting at here by a sweet illustrative analogy. It’s Year 12 and the prime time for some restricted license action. You know what that means — freedom! No more driving with those L plates, with your mum or dad sitting adjacent to you, observing every move you make. Now you are wheeling free solo around town, hooning through the suburbs and ensuring that everyone knows you now have your restricted license. But see, that can get boring by yourself, and you want to show your friends how cool you are. You think to yourself that one drive — even though it may be illegal — won’t do any harm. So, you do it. And it is great! Then you do it again because of how good it was last time. Because of the fact that you are a wilding teen you don’t think twice about who your decisions may be affecting, so you continue carrying passengers and it becomes routine. Then a day comes when you are driving with passengers (of course, because that is what you do now), and you accidentally get a little bit speedy. Thanks to your unlucky luck, a police officer catches you in the act and initiates the sirens behind you. Panic and anxiety surge through your system as you swerve to the side; there is not getting out of this one. A delightful chat with the police officer results in 25 demerit points and a $100 fine — how wholesome is that! You thought for so long that getting pulled over by the police would never happen to you, until it did.  

The consequences of repeated risky actions are severe if we refer to the case above for example. But you know, one has to have a little bit of optimism bias now and then. Some may call it wishful thinking, the gambler’s fallacy, cognitive or optimism bias, or even now, the “It Won’t Happen to Me … Until It Did” syndrome. It’s about finding a middle ground rather than abolishing any risk taking. A middle ground between taking risks and not being a complete idiot. Without risk (we are speaking reasonably here, not referring to cases of jumping off high objects without any safety net and such), the destination of your potential could be so far away from what you think, and you’ll never know where it could be. Then again, by including risk taking in your day to day routine, the likelihood of you contracting the dreadful consequential cold will be much higher. So, before going ahead with a risky endeavour, it is essential to carry out a quick risk analysis. Ask yourself: 1) is this hurting me or anyone else? 2) is this going to be better in the long run? 3) is it worth the risk? From there onwards, you will have a much better indication on the decision.  

The “It Won’t Happen to Me … Until It Did” syndrome is much realer than you may think. It lingers in the air of every decision you encompass and make. You are most likely the victim of it, but don’t think that’s a bad thing; it is inevitable and engrained in our innate human nature. Know that the dangers of it are impressive and require serious caution. Simultaneously though, without taking risks in the first place could be more dangerous in the long run. The king, Mark Zuckerburg, said to himself, “the biggest risk is taking no risk”. Do you want to continue wondering? Or are you ready to find out? 

By Ella Gibson