Positive Thinking DEBUNKED – Belief In A Positive Future Found To Halt Present-Day Action (And Lead To Bad Outcomes)

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Positive Thinking DEBUNKED - Belief In A Positive Future Found To Halt Present-Day Action
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If you Google the terms “positive thinking” there are various favorable articles supporting it, specifically how positive thinking can affect work productivity, interpersonal relationships, and even overall happiness. But how effective is positive thinking in reality? In 2017, Rogers, Moore, and Norton studied a concept called belief in a favorable future (“BFF”). The concept of BFF is centered on how people believe that others in society, not just people in their circle of relationships, will finally come round to holding the same views as the ‘believer’. These ideologies are varied, such as political views, scientific beliefs, and entertainment and/or product preferences. [1]

The researchers pointed out that there was a big difference between believing in a positive outcome (which is more commonly known was optimism) and believing that future people will change their opinion about a particular thing. In fact, BFF was greater in magnitude or strongest among people who think their views or beliefs are objective instead of subjective. So what exactly is the problem with believing in a favorable future?

Todd Rogers, one of the study’s lead scientists, report that people who believe that they are correct and that other people will eventually convert to their way of thinking actually diminishes the chances that they will take any sort of action to turn their belief into a reality. Too much BFF can cause less actual action which leads to bad outcomes; sometimes, this inaction can lead to the exact opposite of what was initially believed in in the first place. [1]

Over the course of their research, the trio focused on related studies and what the consequences of a belief in favorable future was. One study was done online and involved 254 participants and their views on nine popular (but often polarized topics): abortion, climate change, ideology, the National Basketball Association (NBA), party affiliation, phone preferences, President Donald Trump, same-sex marriage, and soda. Regarding these nine topics, the researchers asked how they believed that other people’s views would change over the course of time. The study’s results showed how people we more likely to believe that others would come around to a similar way of thinking than not. One result showed that 91% of the respondents believed that people will be more likely to agree in future to make abortion more accessible to women than the opposite (which was 47%). [2]

Another set of data from people in the United Kingdom, China, Japan and the Netherlands revealed that BFF was cross-cultural, and that this kind of biased belief is quite different from optimism and a psychological effect called false consensus. Even when they are faced with accurate predictions, people from these different countries and cultures were still more likely to believe that others’ beliefs will change to match their own over time. [2]

Belief In A Favorable Future Changes Behavior

However, the most important piece of data from the studies is how BFF can affect actual behavior. In a field experiment, Rogers, Moore, and Norton sent out two kinds of fundraising e-mails to 660,000 supporters of the Democratic Governor’s Association, they found that people were less likely to open and donate if the e-mail if the subject indicated that the Democrat was in the lead than if the subject indicated that he was losing but trailing closely behind the opposition. This meant that more people were more likely to take action because of the fear of a negative outcome compared to a positive one. [2]

On another note, an older study in 2002 actually focused on how negative thinking could actually improve performance and personal growth; this study suggests that pessimism could actually forge better outcomes than optimism. Julie Norem from Wellesley College and Edward Chang from the University of Michigan found that because optimism is typically a sign of better coping mechanisms, people believe that its opposite, pessimism, is something that needs to be avoided. However, human psychology is much too complicated than “optimism is good” and “pessimism is bad”. Norem and Chang cite a study done in the 1980s where defensive pessimists actually worked just as well (no significant statistical difference) as strategic optimists: meaning their outcomes were more or less the same. In fact, defensive pessimism or negative thinking worked better for people with anxiety because it was a way for them to curb their feelings of anxiety and perform better in the process. [3]

Futhermore, the researchers found that biased positive thinking could hinder performance (the same concept as Rogers, Moore, and Norton’s study) because of how these kinds of people were more resistant to change and negative feedback. Negative feedback isn’t always detrimental to a wanted outcome and could in fact be informative enough to help achieve said outcome. If a positive thinker is faced with bad feedback, it may likely hinder his or her performance and lead to bad outcomes, compared to negative thinkers who are more susceptible to changing their behavior to produce good outcomes. [3]

Of course, these studies are only a drop in the various research that has been done on the human psyche. Obviously, if positive thinking works for you and leads to better personal outcomes, then by all means continue doing it. However, too much of anything can be bad. It is best to remember to be more open to change and feedback, which is typically given in order to improve performance and not hinder it. Positive thinking can be detrimental in its own way, so be fluid and more open-minded instead of sticking to old biases.

References:

[1] Rogers, Moore, and Norton (2017). The Belief in a Favorable Future. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0956797617706706

[2] ScienceDaily. Believing the future will be favorable may prevent action. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/08/170803145643.htm

[3] Norem, J. & Chang, E. (2002). The Positive Psychology of Negative Thinking. http://homepages.se.edu/cvonbergen/files/2012/12/The-Positive-Psychology-of-Negative-Thinking.pdf

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