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5 Pitfalls of Positive Thinking

To move past setbacks, you need to see them for what they are.

Tomorrow’s another day.
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
There’s a silver lining in every cloud.

These adages, along with others, are part and parcel of our cultural wisdom about coping with disappointment and setbacks in life, as well as part of the cheerleading that has us striving to persevere, no matter the odds. But is this kind of positive thinking actually good for you? The answer is that it often isn’t, and that this kind of thinking can be just more icing on a cake that has enough frosting already, thank you very much.

Here are 5 reasons why:

1. We’re already hardwired for overoptimism.

It’s called the “optimism bias,” and it basically means that we are inclined to think that bad things will happen to us (and those close to us) less often than they will happen to other people and that, conversely, good things will be more likely to happen to us than to the average person. The bias affects the kind of risks we take and our attitudes toward those risks; it also keeps us going at times when we really ought to be looking at changing our lives and maybe even bailing out of some situations. First noted by psychologist Neil Weinstein in 1980, it’s been looked at different ways over the years.

A fascinating experiment, detailed in 2012 by Tali Sharot and others, demonstrated that there is actually a location in the brain for the optimism bias, the left interior frontal gryus (IFG). Negative information, they posited, is processed by the right IFG. When they delivered intercranial magnetic stimulation to the left IFG—thus disabling study participants' fount of optimism—they were able to demonstrate that people were more apt both to let in negative information and to pay attention to it.

2. Overoptimism amps up our other cognitive biases.

Much of the time that we think we’re thinking, we’re actually not, because much of our decision-making actually happens on a fast, automatic, and largely unconscious level. Thinking positively about future outcomes, in the absence of cues that would serve as a realistic basis for optimism, only amplifies our propensity for incorrectly seeing a single slightly positive or less negative result as “proof” of progress or an increased possibility of success (known as intermittent reinforcement); believing that we are above-average in our talents and abilities; focusing on what we have already invested toward a goal (known as the sunk-cost fallacy); and seeing what’s a really a complete miss as a “near win." Overoptimism increases our ability to hoodwink ourselves into thinking we’re making progress when we’re really standing still.

3. We already have a psychological immune system.

Human beings don’t need to work on thinking more positively, because what Timothy Wilson and Daniel Gilbert have called “the psychological immune system” is already in place and at work. This system operates unconsciously and prevents us from going down for the count when something bad happens and it helps to soften the blow of negative information. The psychological immune system restructures our thinking about the bad thing that just happened, whether it’s our lover leaving or our boss firing us, without our being aware that our thinking is being revised.

Let’s look at the breakup scenario as an example: At first, all we can do is weep, remembering how adorable she looked in the morning, the wonderful trip we took together, the feel of his skin. But then the system starts kicking in with other memories: the fights we had and how he was always quick to pick them, how our friends never really liked him, and so forth. We begin to feel better, and the more coherent our revised thoughts become, the better we feel about the relationship ending.

In combination with that immune system, additional positive thinking (Everything happens for a reason) is overkill that can prevent you from learning what you need to from the failed relationship. It also encourages you to look away from or bury the negative emotions aroused by the breakup, emotions that you actually need to work on managing. 

4. Optimism feeds the illusion of control.

Our assorted biases already guarantee that while we credit our successes to our own actions, we attribute failures to outside sources or situations beyond our control. In addition, it turns out that being a bit down in the mouth about our prospects may actually stand us in good stead as an antidote to all that optimism. In a series of experiments conducted by Lauren B. Alloy and Lyn Y. Abramson, participants were asked to push or not push a button and then observe whether a green light turned on. What the participants didn’t know was that what they did or didn’t do had nothing to do with the light going on; in fact, it was being manipulated by a researcher. But when asked how much control they had over the light, depressed subjects had a far more accurate view of their own agency. Non-depressed participants were not just more optimistic, they tended to impute far more control to their actions. 

When you curb your enthusiasm, along with your optimism, you can recognize that you’re wired to connect dots that aren’t actually connected. Inculcate some realism into how you view your actions, the venture itself, and the progress you’re making.

5. Positive thinking can be a distraction.

No one needs help managing positive feelings, but most of us aren’t nearly as adept as we ought to be at managing our feelings when bad things happen. Thinking positively—reaching for that silver-lining script or putting on those rose-colored glasses—not only skews our ability to assess situations realistically but also encourages us to avoid or distract ourselves from dealing with negative fallout. That’s not good. To be happier, we need to become able to manage our unhappiness when we experience a setback or a downright disaster.

 

 

Copyright© 2014 Peg Streep

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Weinstein, N.D. “Unrealistic Optimism About Future Events,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (1980), 39, 806–20.

Harris, Adam J.L. and Ulrike Hahn, “Unrealistic Optimism About Future Life Events: A Cautionary Note,” Psychological Review (2011), vol.118, no. 1, 135–54.

Sharot, Tali, Ryote Kanai, David Marston, et. al., “Selectively altering belief formation in the human brain,”  PNAS http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2012/09/17/1205828109.full.pdf.

Wilson. Timothy D. and Daniel Gilbert, “Affective Forecasting,” Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 35 (2003), 346–411.

Alloy, Lauren B. and Lyn Abramson, “Judgment of Contingency in Depressed and Non-Depressed Students: Sadder but Wiser?” Journal of Experimental Psychology (1978), 8, no.4.

Peg Streep, author or coauthor of nine books, is a New York City based writer currently working on a book about the Millennial generation.

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