Saturday, 1 March 2014

The Delusion of Positive Thinking

When is positive thinking useful and can it ever be harmful? Is it productive, effective or is it simply an analgesic for the heart, often masking the symptoms of something lacking. 

First of all, a confession: I don't believe in positive thinking. I believe in realistic thinking, I believe in hoping for the best, but planning for the worst. And I am sick and tired of people who advocate blind positive thinking. The band-aid of "it will be alright." For me, this kind of positive thinking can advocate inactivity, and sometimes inactivity can be harmful, even fatal. 

I was actually "told off" today, for being concerned about the stage of our adoption process and for wanting to do something about it. I was told that my worrying, my "negative thoughts" are not helping the process. This might be true. But neither are other people's positive thoughts.... if we are honest. 

I have been looking for the research, because I am a scientificaly-minded kind of girl. I have looked high and low and I am pleased to say I have found all sorts of interesting evidence.

It seems that although positive thinking might make us feel better, there is some evidence that suggests it might also numb us, in a way that stops us from acting to realise our goals. 

First of all this study by University of California social psychologist Lein Pham is one often used by "positive thinking" advocates. It is an interesting study, because it does indeed show a link between positive thought, or as the authors call it mental stimulation, and performance. However, there is an important distinction. In the study, students were asked to spend a few minutes each day either visualising themselves getting a high grade in an upcoming exam or visualising having good study habits (the first being an outcome-based mental stimulation and the latter a process-based mental stimulation). The results were surprising (at least they should be to advocates of blind positive thinking)!

The students who spent a few moments each day visualising doing well in the exam... wait for it... actually did worse! We, of course can't tell exactly why, but my money is on the fact that these positive thoughts caused the students to feel overly confident about their chances of doing well, leading to the students doing less actual work!

And here's another interesting study from New York University where they looked at two forms of thinking: expectations versus fantasies. Positive expectations (judging a desired future as likely) predicted, on the whole, high effort and successful performance. The reverse was true of positive fantasies (experiencing one's thoughts and mental images about a desired future positively). Among those taking part in the study, we saw recent graduates looking for a job. The students who reported that they regularly fantasised about getting their dream job, received fewer job offers and ended up with significantly lower wages!!

My personal life philosophy is this and I know exactly where it stems from too. It has a lot to do with my father and his untimely death, as well as other experiences with the harsh reality of life.

I believe in positive expectations, acknowledging that I want things to go well. But I also know that I have a role to play in the process, I have to get off my behind and go out and get things. I have to have a plan (and sometimes a plan A and a plan B and even a plan C) because things don't always turn out the way we expect them to.

I strongly believe in striving for the best result. But positive thinking alone will not hack it! In fact, as the studies above has shown, positive thinking can even harm the process and the result, by numbing awareness of where we stand in reality. That's all for now. 


  1. Whoah, I think I just discovered my cosmic twin! We think so much alike!

    Can't wait to learn more about you.

  2. Thanks for your comment! By the way, if you agree with this, then I really do think you might be my long lost twin... It is certainly not a popular opinion :)



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