Man crossing fingers for good luck

(Photo 39175385 © Rafael Ben Ari | Dreamstime.com)

I consider myself a fairly optimistic individual, but new research is showing me why my rose-tinted glasses can sometimes lead me into trouble. Though not necessarily groundbreaking insight, the study concludes that wishful thinking can lead to poor judgment with potentially dangerous consequences. For the glass-is-half-full folks out there, while I believe we possess a great superpower that yields greater productivity and resiliency, this study is a good reminder that we can stay still grounded in reality without giving into a pessimistic mindset.

Optimism has served an important purpose in my life. It is one of the ways I thrive despite the daily fingernail-gnawing anxiety I’ve long battled. Everything might not be all right in the now, but I always believe everything will be all right eventually, in some capacity. This mindset likely started after my parents split up when I was a toddler. It likely grew when I observed and realized early on the stressors that come from being in a financially challenged household. And it likely became a part of my fabric from our family moving nine times before I finally went off to college. Through all of this change and uncertainty and tumult, I always maintained a positive outlook, embracing what was constant in my life: the love and goodness I experienced from my family and friends as a child. I imagine it is why I could quiet the anxiety enough to be successful in school, and carry that perseverance into adulthood.

But believing everything is going to be all right can naturally lead to disappointment. And as scientists from the University of Amsterdam point out in their paper, it can also unintentionally and unwittingly put us in harm’s way. That’s because downplaying the bad by focusing on the good during times of uncertainty can also prevent us from taking steps to help ourselves — ones that we probably should be taking in the now.

And by the time we get to the “then,” we’ll be turning to optimism yet again. Only at that point, it serves as a way to cope with an outcome we should have prevented from the start.

For example, sometime in my early 30s, I began experiencing slight shoulder pain while lifting weights. Wishful thinking led me to believe that the pain would eventually go away by taking time off from lifting. So I’d switch to cardio workouts, and eventually resume lifting after a week or two. The pain was right there waiting for me when I returned. I’d rinse and repeat and, of course, over time, I caused damage I could have easily avoided. Had I not listened to my optimistic brain and sought help sooner, I could have begun the physical therapy I needed early on to strengthen my muscles correctly. Instead, today I am left with a bum shoulder and now (optimistically) dealing with the frustrating and painful repercussions of my boneheadedness.

Wishful thinking can hurt you in no shortage of ways. From gambling too much to not paying off credit card balances in full, an optimistic mindset can lead people into financial hardship. And similar to how I ignored my shoulder pain, other individuals who pay little mind to symptoms plaguing their vital organs could be putting their long-term health at risk.

In the study, researchers exposed the flaws of wishful thinking in experiments involving 1,700 adults. Prticipants were shown various patterns, such as differently colored dots or stripes oriented in various directions. Some of these patterns were linked to unpleasant outcomes – for example, if they saw a certain pattern, they might receive a mild electric shock or lose a bit of money. The researchers aimed to determine if the fear or anxiety caused by these potential negative outcomes affected their ability to accurately identify the patterns they saw.

‘We wanted to see if people make more mistakes in recognizing patterns associated with a negative outcome, thinking it was actually a harmless pattern,” explains Joël van der Weele, a professor of Economic Psychology, in a media release. “That would indicate wishful thinking.”

Their hypothesis was spot on. When participants were later shown the negative patterns, they were more likely to misidentify these patterns as harmless ones. Even when faced with the possibility of an unpleasant outcome, people tended to see what they wanted to see – a pattern that wouldn’t lead to anything bad happening. This is a clear example of wishful thinking driven by anxiety.

The findings held up even after researchers twice tried to make people more realistic in their pattern recognition. First, they made the patterns easier to identify, which reduced uncertainty. This intervention successfully reduced wishful thinking among participants.

Second, they offered higher potential rewards for correctly identifying patterns. Interestingly, this intervention only had a significant effect when participants were given more time to examine the patterns closely before making their choice. When participants had the opportunity to gather more information and were highly motivated by a potential reward, they became more realistic and accurate in their responses.

Eventually, negative outcomes were actually replaced with positive ones in some experiments. For example, instead of losing money for certain patterns, participants might have had the chance to win money. In these cases, participants did not show signs of wishful thinking. This suggests that removing the negative emotions associated with the patterns led to a reduction in overly optimistic thinking.

Yes, in the end, everything very well might wind up being all right. But being proactive can certainly improve those chances. That might mean seeking out help or getting opinions from others right from the start. Or it could simply mean earnestly thinking through every aspect of a predicament and honoring the bad stuff we’d typically ignore.

And guess what? As us rosy-outlook folks know, there’s optimism to be found no matter what  — even if choosing the path that wishful thinking wouldn’t initially have taken us down. If only I’d figured that out at the gym.

About Steve Fink

Steve Fink is the founder and Editor-In-Chief of StudyFinds.com. He is a veteran journalist who previously served as Vice President of News Engagement for CBS Television Stations' websites. Beginning his career as a sports producer at WJZ-TV in Baltimore in 2001, he previously served as Managing Editor of CBSNewYork.com and WCBSTV.com before joining the company’s corporate digital team in 2010.

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1 Comment

  1. Emory Kendrick says:

    No. Everything is not going to be all right. You make your own luck. In the real world, there is not fairy Godmother who comes to straighten everything out. We are not in Kansas anymore, Toto.