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The Dangers of Optimism

Positive thinking can be dangerous-at times.

Some people think there is power in positive thinking. Just think positively and everything will turn out the way you want. This is the premise behind the book, The Secret, which advertises itself as "Everything is possible, nothing is impossible." How wonderful to know that we can count on the power of our thinking to change the laws of nature. Gee, I wonder if just thinking positively will overcome the law of gravity. Any volunteers? No? Hmm.

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.

The relevance of this is that the manic lacks these negative thoughts and the therapist may need to balance the ascent into mania with some pessimism to overcome this risk-loving bias. Thus, patients can benefit from remembering the pain and suffering of their manic episodes, develop self-instructional scripts that ask them to consider this risk-loving bias prior to their next episodes, test out their risk-loving beliefs with others to see if there is consensus, and wait 48 hours before taking action. Regret is an expensive but often necessary way to learn. He who doesn't regret is--well, an idiot.

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.

Indeed, we can see the consequence of the lack of negative thinking in the headlines today: The European Union needs to bail out manic populations who thought that the bill collector would never appear at their doorstep. The same with subprime mortgages and absurd derivatives which sent Bear Stearns under, destroyed Lehman, and almost evaporated Goldman, Citi and many others. What we really needed were some voices that said, "Wait, you haven't looked at the downside yet!" All the manic positive thinkers were enjoying the party.

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.

More from Robert L. Leahy Ph.D.
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More from Robert L. Leahy Ph.D.
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