The Irony of Wishful Thinking

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Synopsis

Positive thinking by itself does neither help the young nor the old, neither college students to get a better grade nor suitors getting a better date. If anything, it keeps people from moving towards the very outcomes they desire.

There are plenty of people who make a good living telling you precisely what you want to hear: You are smart, you are beautiful, you are creative, you can do anything if you just work hard enough and so on.

As many people live lives of quiet desperation, these messages are as welcome as they are alluring.

One such perennially seductive idea is that positive thinking itself can bring about positive outcomes, regardless of circumstance. In recent years, the runaway success of books like “The Secret” has created a downright fascist atmosphere about optimism – if you aren’t positive, there may well be something wrong with you. At the very least, you will be missing out on all the good things life has to offer, famously the “bright triad” of wealth, health and happiness because they only come to those who sincerely believe that favorable things will happen to them, or so the “law of attraction” implies.   

Even those who reject claims that are clearly aimed at the most gullible amongst us will be inclined to agree with the notion that common sense commands that regardless of what else happens, a positive attitude is critical to success.

If you agree with this statement, you might be surprised to learn that there is not a shred of empirical evidence to support it. Worse, positive thinking could actually and actively undermine your likelihood of success.

This is the provocative thesis of Gabriele Oettingen’s latest book, “Rethinking Positive Thinking”. Fortunately for the author, she is able to back up this alarming statement with an abundance of meticulous empirical research.

Oettingen spent a lifetime researching the question of the efficacy of wishful thinking and details her findings in this book. Regardless of the population or domain she looked at, the outcomes of this research are as robust as they are conclusive – positive thinking by itself does neither help the young nor the old, neither college students to get a better grade nor suitors getting a better date.

If anything, it keeps people from moving towards the very outcomes they desire.

She considers the act of positive thinking itself casual in the failure of achieving positive outcomes and explains this by noting that idealizing one’s future could well undercut one’s motivation to do things. Many positive outcomes result from facing a hostile world in a competitive struggle. Immersing oneself in positive imagery is much more comforting and relaxing in the short term, but devastating to achieving better outcomes in the long run.

So while wishful thinking might be comforting, it doesn't come without a price. Egged on by the “law of attraction” crowd, people might think that they don’t actually have to do anything, as they are already great and even greater things will magically happen to them in the future. However, perhaps years later, the bill will come due and will have to be paid - by them - in full. The currency to pay this bill comes in the form of wasted lives, obscurity and contributions to society that were never made. As Oettingen notes, this problem might even have a societal component, as there is a strong negative correlation between positive thinking in presidential inauguration speeches and economic development during their term.

If fantasizing about the future is so detrimental, why then do people do it? Daydreaming is probably best conceptualized as a coping mechanism to deal with harsh reality. Life is too complex to guarantee positive outcomes, regardless of ability, talent or virtuous conduct. Sometimes, things just don't work out and there are no realistic prospects of improvement. The ability to hope might just be wholly defensive in nature, effectively preventing a sentient organism from committing suicide, but importantly not conducive to bringing about change in the real world.

What – then – can motivate change? Sometimes, feeling bad about something is justified because things really are bad and will remain this way unless someone exerts the effort to change them.

Say you have some task, e.g. doing your taxes. You know from experience that this will be a tedious undertaking and the inherently byzantine nature of tax legislation ensures that the prospect of a refund will be in doubt until the very end. This combination of guaranteed downside and uncertain upside ensures that this task will be unpleasant. So you will want to avoid doing it.  In a time before jobs and taxes, our emotional system largely evolved to deal with infrequent and transient threats. There are two principal ways to deal with such challenges: Fighting or avoiding them. If the problem can be sidestepped, avoiding it is not a bad strategy. Of course, in our modern world, this task will still be there tomorrow, you will just have less time to do it, making it even more aversive because of guilt. At this point, the most likely outcome is a downward spiral of procrastination – avoiding the task until the very last moment at which it can no longer be avoided without suffering serious consequences.

Unfortunately, many if not most of the problems faced by people in the modern world have this general structure: A certain and immediate downside combined with a delayed and uncertain upside. This is true of losing weight, asking someone out on a date, investing in a company, studying for a degree and so on.

If fantasizing about how good it would be to attain these goals just fosters complacency, what is one to do?

That’s where the approach that Oettingen developed to achieve goals comes in. It is a technique that creatively utilizes the brain’s motivational circuitry to overcome such difficulties. The power of this approach consists in its versatility. As many of the problems a civilized individual faces have the same general structure, a technique that works for one of them might just work for all of them. In brief, that is what the second half of the book documents – this technique seems to work for all kinds of goals including weight loss, improving relationship satisfaction and academic achievement.

Of course we can use all the help we can get when it comes to actually achieving our goals. This is a notorious problem in western societies. People living in an environment that their brain evolved to tackle are generally doing ok. People living in a repressive culture have only limited options to shape their life according to their aspirations. It is particularly in liberty-based societies where people can get in trouble, operating their brain well outside of the range of parameters it was designed to work in and using their ample freedoms mostly just to ruin their life.  

So how does this technique go beyond wishful thinking to motivate people to achieve their goals? After all, everyone likes to be encouraged, particularly if life itself is rather discouraging.

The way it works is best illustrated by going through the steps involved. First, think of an important but feasible goal that you want to achieve. Then, vividly imagine the best possible outcome that is associated with attaining the goal. Now, contemplate what specifically holds you back from attaining that goal, whatever it might be. Finally, consider one action that would be most effective in overcoming what holds you back.

The point of this is exercise is to use fantasizing as a motivating part of the overall process, but not to stop there. Instead, obstacles are re-conceptualized by mental contrasting (“it would be so great if I achieved this goal, but this obstacle is keeping me back”) to serve an activating role as motivational launchpads.

Oettingen fittingly calls this method “WOOP” for Wish, Obstacle, Outcome and Plan and encourages you to “WOOP your life”.

The enduring success of self-help books touting the benefits of positive thinking may already have left you suspicious of their claims that it is sufficient to bring about positive life outcomes - if anyone can do it, why are such books still being bought and sold? Desiring something is easy – getting it is hard.

Of course, most self-help books are to be taken literally – they really only help the person who wrote them – but this one is different.

On the face of it, Oettingen’s message is bitter medicine, but it is much needed. The reason why this book is important is because it – almost uniquely – doesn’t tell you what you want to hear, but what you need to hear and does so with plentiful empirical coverage to make a truly compelling case.

It is extremely hard to bring about positive life outcomes. Pretending that this is not the case and that wishful thinking is all it takes is comforting, but is not instrumental. 

 

Pascal Wallisch, Ph.D. Clinical Assistant Professor Department of Psychology New York University.

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Tags: daydreaming, gabriele oettingen, mental contrasting, motivation, pascal wallisch, positive psychology, positive thinking, wishful thinking

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