The Dangers of Optimism
Positive thinking can be dangerous-at times.
Posted Oct 28, 2011
Sounds both absurd—and rather dangerous to me.
I think that positive thinking can be dangerous—at times.
A number of years ago, in one of the first papers on a cognitive model of bipolar disorder, Beck and I proposed that manic thinking is characterized by overly positive biases in automatic thoughts and assumptions ( Leahy, RL and Beck, AT (1988) Cognitive therapy of depression and mania, in Depression and Mania (eds R. Cancro and R. Georgotas), In a series of other articles and chapters I have advanced a model of manic thinking that stresses the escalation of maladaptive positivity characterized by greater risk taking. This is based on an exaggeration of current and future resources ("I have all the money, the sex appeal, the brilliance"), over-estimation of ability to persevere and replicate ("I can do whatever it takes to make it work"), over-estimates of the utility of gains ("I will really enjoy the wonderful things that come with this"), underestimation of the negative disutility of costs ("The costs won't be that painful"), discounting of costs ("There won't be any costs"), over-emphasis of the value and predictability of current information ("I know what's going to happen"), and the perception of the urgency to obtain gains ("I need it now and I can get it now").
I refer to this as an investment model or portfolio theory model of mania, suggesting that manics have overly optimistic models of decision making. I have based this on modern portfolio theory (Markowitz), with a mix of attribution dimensions thrown in.
In a sense, the most useful approach may be a cybernetic model of self-regulation that keeps one from becoming too positive or too negative. Just as my thermostat, set on 70 degrees, can detect movements up and down and correct them toward the middle, a balance of negative and positive can be quite adaptive. As the Stoics said two thousand years ago, don't get too sad or too happy. Don't get carried away.
Indeed, this has relevance to investment strategies in the real economy where overly optimistic investors or buyers believed that everything would continue to rise in value, that they had the genius to predict, and that "this time it's different". It wasn't--and the bubble burst--worldwide. This is an example of where negative thoughts would have been quite helpful. But no one would listen, except the few geniuses who bet against optimism and took all the money off the table.
The power of positive thinking is called a bubble. Reality testing is seeing that the bubble has burst–or will burst.
Yes, there is value in negative thoughts and (sometimes) extreme danger in positive thoughts. Sometimes, optimism can kill you.