We have all been guilty of wishful thinking on occasion. Sometimes we will catch ourselves thinking whimsically about a perfect future, or looking back on things that happened through rose-tinted glasses.
This is a perfectly normal and healthy activity and one that can help to make the world seem a little more tolerable even when things aren’t going according to plan.
The key though, is that we need to remain at least somewhat detached from this wishful thinking. In other words, we need to take it for what it is and acknowledge that it is not reality.
When predicting future outcomes, all of us are prone to be somewhat overly positive. This is sometimes explained as being due to an attempt to resolve the ‘conflict’ between what we want and what we know to be true (1). However, it can also be described as our egocentrism (our belief that the world revolves around us – partly a result of perspective) and as a coping mechanism to help us deal with negative realities.
Essentially, the brain is a prediction machine and its purpose is to help us make the best decisions in order to increase our likelihood of survival and of passing on our genetic material. This starts when we imagine the outcome we want: we want the political climate to improve, we want to be rich, we don’t want to become ill.
If we were to assume the worst and to assume that we would have no impact on future outcomes, then we would not be motivated to continue or to make positive changes in our lives. Likewise, if we were unable to imagine the future we wanted, then we would be unable to plot a course to help us achieve the best outcomes for ourselves.
Wishful thinking is not a problem in itself but can be problematic if it isn’t kept under control. As we’ve seen, it is normal, healthy and adaptive to spend time imagining better outcomes for ourselves and it can even be healthy under some circumstances to deny reality. As the British would say: ‘keep calm and carry on’.
Problems occur however when a skewed perception of reality can lead to poor decision making – which can get us into trouble.
An example of this is the ‘gamblers’ fallacy’. This is a cognitive bias wherein a gambler will feel that their odds improve, the more they lose. If red comes up 20 times on the roulette wheel, then it must be black next time… right?
Wrong! While the odds of red coming up 21 times in a row are miniscule, that isn’t what you measuring. You are measuring the odds of it being red or black on the next go: which is always going to be 50/50 (not accounting for the green).
Wishful thinking can make us overly positive in this kind of circumstance and thereby make the wrong decision: choosing to continue gambling rather than cut your losses.
Likewise, wishful thinking could lead to poor investment strategies, or could lead you to ‘hold out’ in a job.
And in extreme cases, wishful thinking can apply to the present as well as the future. There is even such thing as ‘wishful seeing’, which can actually alter visual perception (2).
There is no harm in indulging yourself in a little wishful thinking from time to time and especially once you understand the mechanisms that give rise to it. What’s important though, is that you recognize it for what it is and that you always take a reality check before making any important life decisions. Positivity is a good thing but not to the point of self-delusion!