This is different because...
I made the mistake at one point of having a girlfriend who had broken it off with a previous boyfriend only because I was available. Said previous boyfriend has started dating her when she broke off her prior relationship, which also ended because the new boyfriend was now available. This took place while said girlfriend was living with a boyfriend-but-not-exactly.
But in my head, all of this was past behavior. Now that she was with me, the stuff that she had done in the past wouldn't happen again because we were special.
This is one of the thoughts at the heart of bad decision making. It's not that you fail to see a pattern as it emerges; it's that human beings are astonishingly good at convincing ourselves that the rules don't apply to our situation because of reasons -- ill-defined reasons that we can't actually articulate, but we're sure they exist. He's cheated on every boyfriend, but he won't cheat on me. She's fired everyone in this job within six months, but I won't get fired. No one's ever made this jump without breaking a limb, but I can manage it.
It's arrogance, but not an intentional sort of arrogance. We just really want something to happen, and so we seize on the one element that's different between us and everyone else. So you tell yourself that even if everyone else has failed at this task, all of those people didn't have an irrelevant physical or mental attribute of yours that doesn't pertain to the situation.
You can see how this could apply to your character easily. Instead of having him realize that trying to unify every nation in Final Fantasy XIV is a fool's errand, have him convince himself that the main difference is that none of the other people who tried to do that was a really good warrior. You as a player know that the two aren't commensurate (being a good leader has no correlation with your ability to fight something), but when you want something badly enough, you're more concerned with having facts to defend yourself than making those facts line up logically.
The rabbit fallacy
Let's assume you're a farmer, out in the field, doing your thing. All of a sudden, you watch a rabbit jump out of a hole, dart across the field, and run right into a tree. The rabbit snaps its own neck, providing you with a free dinner just by being in the area. (It's assumed in this example that you will eat a rabbit.)
You'd see that as a windfall, right? Free food, no effort! But you probably wouldn't spend the remainder of your life just sitting and staring at that rabbit hole waiting for another free dinner. Unless you did.
Not everyone is great at analyzing situations, but most of us are at least capable enough to recognize what can be done to improve our odds in the future. The trouble is that we're terrible at determining how likely we'll be to ever face that situation again. We can come up with a long list of plans meant to protect us better in the event of the next hurricane, but that doesn't take into account that odds are good that was the only hurricane we'll see for another two decades. More practice dancing will help us at the next dance contest, even though the first one was a disaster and no one wants to host another one. You couldn't come up with a retort on the spot, but the next time someone uses that specific insult on you, you'll be ready, oh yes indeed.
It all seems harmless, just as it seems harmless to put up a system of "rabbit-breaks" around the hole to ensure that the rabbit's neck breaks faster... until you notice that you've spent a month of your time and a bunch of your money getting that set up.
This can work two ways. The first is that it's easy for a character to simply expect something will happen without taking into account how unlikely it really is. All the time in the world planning to impress your superior officer at the next training session won't change the fact that she doesn't care and is no longer your superior. Meanwhile, it can also manifest as a character spending far too much time and/or energy on solving a problem that's unlikely to arise again. Unless you're in Star Trek Online or Champions Online, odds are low that you'll need to construct a temporal bunker to prevent future versions of yourself from interfering in the present.
I control fate itself!
Humans are logical, but we're also creatures of pattern, which means that we're good at seeing patterns even where they don't exist. That's why we associate luck with objects: because something really good happened when we wore this shirt or these earrings or whatever. You always cut the cards a certain way when playing a game with cards of some sort because that's your power shuffle. We've all got rituals designed to make the forces of fortune trend in our favor, even when we also realize that these rituals don't actually do anything.
But they point to an underlying truth: We see our own actions as far too important for the outcome to be decided by chance. And we have a bad tendency of focusing on the moments when these things work as opposed to the moments when they don't. The result is an illusion of control that we use to disguise our own chances of success.
This is clearly tied to thinking that you're a special and unique snowflake who is different from everyone else because of reasons, but it doesn't limit itself to a single goal. No, this is a much more fundamental mistake of believing that the odds are lower for everyone else but you. You acknowledge that success is random but don't acknowledge that the randomness is identical for everyone.
Heck, we're encouraged to think that way by more or less every form of media in existence. I can't remember how many times I was told that such-and-such an adversary in Star Wars: The Old Republic was a major threat... and then we fought and I won, reminding everyone that the odds are for everyone else.
Fortunately for us all, we've seen this trope used and subverted time and again in media, meaning that we all have a good idea of what it looks like when someone plays the long odds while expecting to win. But it's important to remember that we're not good at internalizing these lessons. You can have your hotshot pilot in EVE Online try to navigate a difficult flight, fail, and still hang on to his lucky coin and take on another similar challenge with no added thought that the odds do apply to him.
Of course, there are other reasons why characters make short-sighted decisions that make perfect sense to those characters even while outside observers know better. But this should serve as a fine foundation to get started.
Feedback is welcome, either in the comments or via mail to email@example.com. (As always, knowing people want to read more columns like this helps me determine whether or not I should revisit the territory.) Next week, let's chat about challenging character concepts, and the week after that I'm going to talk about fencing in your characters.
Every Friday, Eliot Lefebvre fills a column up with excellent advice on investing money, writing award-winning novels, and being elected to public office. Then he removes all of that, and you're left with Storyboard, which focuses on roleplaying in MMOs. It won't help you get elected, but it will help you pretend you did. If you need a refresher, check out the Storyboard Library.