The Psychology of Escapism: Why Do People Choose to Escape?

Da Vinci's notebook
6 min readAug 31, 2023

Have you ever found yourself staring at a washing machine in motion, just to avoid doing something more important? Or perhaps, right before you start on a report or file your taxes, cleaning the bathroom suddenly becomes urgent? Congratulations, you might be an expert at escapism. But don’t worry, you’re not alone. Escapism is a common human behavior, and it may even have its reasons for existing. We’ve all had moments where we wanted to escape, but have you ever wondered why we do it?

Defining Escapism and Its Various Forms

Escapism, by its very definition, is the act of avoiding, dodging, or ignoring something. Sure, we all want to escape boring family gatherings or those unbearably long and tedious work meetings. But what we’ll delve deeper into here is the real impact of escapism when it becomes a regular part of our daily lives.

Psychological Underpinnings: Why Escape Instead of Facing the Issue?

One often cited theory is the “Self-Determination Theory,” which proposes that people have three basic psychological needs: autonomy, competence, and relatedness. When these needs are threatened, escapism serves as a psychological defense mechanism. In times of stress or fear, escapism can temporarily take us away from unpleasant emotions.

Imagine you’re a caveman who encounters a wild beast. Your brain quickly decides between “fight or flight.” Unless you have superhuman abilities, running away seems to be the wiser choice. In modern society, the “beasts” we face are more likely to be work pressure, relationship issues, or financial woes. Our brains still employ the ancient “fight or flight” mechanism to handle these stresses.

So when your boss dumps a load of work on you and you choose to binge-watch Netflix instead, it’s your brain telling you: “This is too hard; we need to escape.” You then immerse yourself in a series, forgetting all your troubles.

Social Media and Escapism: Why Escape Reality in the Digital Age?

Advances in modern technology make it so that all you need is a smartphone to escape the real world. Who needs genuine human interaction when you can get thousands of likes on Instagram? Compared to the issues and annoyances of real life, escaping into a curated, filtered virtual world seems like a good idea.

However, it’s a double-edged sword. On one hand, social media offers an escape; on the other, it may exacerbate our anxieties and stresses. After all, when everyone seems to be flaunting their perfect lives, you might start questioning your self-worth.

Neuroscience of Escapism: Why Does the Brain “Happily Escape”?

To understand escapism on a deeper level, we can’t ignore neuroscience. Simply put, our brains love rewards. When we choose to escape by doing something more “pleasurable” (like eating chocolate or watching a movie), our brains release dopamine, a neurotransmitter that makes us feel happy.

This is why escapism feels so good, at least in the short term. The issue, however, is that the effects of dopamine are fleeting, while the problems resulting from escapism may be long-lasting.

Social Aspects of Escapism: What is Collective Escapism?

Beyond the individual, escapism has a social dimension. Historically, escapism has sometimes been a collective behavior. For example, during economic downturns or political instability, people may collectively turn to entertainment or religion as a form of escape.

While collective escapism might offer short-term relief, it doesn’t address the root problems. On the contrary, it might delay necessary social and personal changes.

Cultural Perspectives: Is Escapism Universal or Specific?

Different cultures have various attitudes towards escapism. In some, it may be seen as a weakness or flaw. In others, especially those emphasizing individualism and self-actualization, escapism may be viewed as a form of self-protection.

This implies that how escapism is evaluated and dealt with could be influenced by one’s cultural background, making it a subject worthy of in-depth study.

Deep Impact: The Moral Dimension of Escapism

Escapism is not just a psychological or social issue; it’s also a moral one. When we choose to escape, we might also be evading our responsibilities to others or to society. This could impact our self-perception as moral agents.

Therefore, in discussing escapism, we should also consider its broader ethical and moral implications, as well as its potential impact on others and society.

Recognizing and Addressing Avoidance Behavior

Avoidance isn’t necessarily bad; sometimes, we genuinely need to rest and relax. However, the issue arises when avoidance becomes a lifestyle rather than a temporary reprieve, as this can lead to problems.

For instance, if you find yourself engrossed in mobile games daily, neglecting work and family, this could be a red flag.

Firstly, recognize that avoidance is a temporary fix. It might offer momentary relief, but it doesn’t address underlying issues.

Secondly, when you feel like you’re avoiding something, pause and ask yourself questions like “Why am I doing this?” and “What am I avoiding?” This usually helps you better understand your actions and emotions.

Lastly, if avoidance has become a frequent behavior, it might be time to seek professional help. Psychotherapy or counseling can help you explore and address these deeper issues.

The Art of Avoidance

Sometimes, avoidance is an art form. Remember those days in school when you’d sneak snacks without the teacher noticing, or secretly game while studying at home? These examples demonstrate the skillful art of evasion.

However, even art has its limits. Just as you can’t hide behind your mother’s skirts forever, you can’t avoid life’s challenges indefinitely. Sooner or later, you’ll have to face them, whatever they may be.

The Cost of Avoidance: A Dusty Guitar Example

For instance, let’s say you bought a guitar, aspiring to be the next guitar hero. Learning guitar is challenging, and you find yourself making excuses to postpone practice. Eventually, that guitar becomes mere decor, collecting dust in a corner.

So what’s the cost of this avoidance? Wasted money and time, missed opportunities, and perhaps worst of all, a constant reminder of your failure, leading to further demotivation.

Avoidance in the Workplace: Procrastination and Meeting Addiction

The workplace is another common setting for avoidance. We might dodge actual work through endless meetings, unnecessary emails, or habitual social media checking.

Procrastination is a common form of avoidance. “I’ll do it tomorrow,” you think. But when tomorrow turns into the day after, then next month, you find yourself trapped in an endless cycle of evasion.

Chronic Avoidance Syndrome

Yes, I just coined that term. It refers to symptoms that manifest when avoidance becomes your default. Long-term avoidance can not only hinder work and social interactions but also pose serious risks to your mental health.

Solutions: From Awareness to Action

  1. Self-awareness: First, realize that you’re avoiding something. Recognition is the first step toward resolution.
  2. Goal-setting: Break down problems into smaller tasks and set achievable goals for each.
  3. Seek support: Share your plans with friends or family, or consult professionals.
  4. Take action: Most importantly, act. Only through action can you genuinely address an issue rather than skirting it.

Conclusion: The Choice Is Yours

We all engage in avoidance; it’s human nature. The key lies in how we manage and confront it. Although avoidance may offer short-term pleasure, it usually causes long-term problems.

To sum up, avoidance is a multifaceted, multi-layered issue, relevant from psychology to sociology, from technology to everyday life.

So the next time you consider avoiding something, pause and think. You may find that facing challenges, though initially difficult, can provide longer-lasting happiness and fulfillment.

Have a think

  1. Can you recall a time when avoidance negatively impacted your life? What did you learn from it?
  2. What techniques or methods do you use to confront tasks or situations you’d rather avoid?
  3. Have you ever sought professional help for chronic avoidance? What was your experience?

Feel free to share your thoughts and experiences!

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Da Vinci's notebook

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