Psyblog is a British blog on psychology and motivation written by Jeremy Dean, a researcher at University College London. He publishes rich and insightful explanations of fascinating psychological studies, applying them towards understanding and persuading other people. His work is something I aspire to.
Recently, he posted an entry called, “Success! Why Expectations Beat Fantasies.” The entry uses a 2002 study to explain how certain types of positive thinking about the future bring about better results than other types of thinking.
The study examined people who were about to go through certain significant life challenges: finding a partner, finding a job, passing an exam, or going through surgery. According to the study, those who expect that they will do well at an upcoming challenge will tend to do well at that challenge, but those who fantasize about doing well at that same challenge will do comparatively poorly.
What’s the difference? According to Dean:
Expectations are based on past experiences. You expect to do well in an exam because you’ve done well in previous exams, you expect to meet another partner because you managed to meet your last partner, and so on. Fantasies, though, involve imagining something you hope will happen in the future, but experiencing it right now.
When we fantasize about an accomplishment, our brains tend to equate that with already having achieved that accomplishment. This can give us an unrealistically easy vision of that challenge. It can detach us from the severity we are about to face, and give us less motivation. Dean notes that of a group of college graduates involved in this study, the ones that had the most positive dreams about their futures ended up applying for fewer jobs, resulting in fewer hirings at lower salaries than the average.
Expectations, on the other hand, are based on past experience. I will probably get a B on this test because I got a B on the last one. It’s not surprising that those people with positive expectations were higher performers, as their positive thinking was grounded in reality. The positivity of their thought process might not even have had all that much to do with their results; by definition, those with positive expectations are already high achievers, so of course they would outperform the average.
What does this mean? Well, in the sixties and seventies, a lot of credence was given to the “power of positive thought.” Positive thinking brought the entire self-help movement into being. Generation Y, the kids raised by the Baby Boomers, is the first generation that got rewarded solely for effort in the name of self-esteem and positivity. To this day, people are encouraged to think more positively in order to improve their quality of life.
Can positive thinking actually be beneficial on its own? Perhaps, but all positive thinking is not the same. It certainly doesn’t have the magical effects attributed by early motivational speakers. And this study proves that positive thought that is unjustified and ungrounded is not only unhelpful, but does harm.
As far as expectations go, we constantly build arguments and rationalizations in our mind based on the experiences we cherry-pick. When we screw something up, for example, our minds like to remember similar screw-ups from our pasts, and that might make us uneasy for the near future. But what if we were able to get really practiced at building positive expectations in our head, not because we’re delusional, but because we choose the right past experiences to support it. How many of us are routinely unfair to ourselves by basing our expectations on overly harsh examples from our past? This is an example of a positive mental habit that might result in tangible benefit.
So while we probably shouldn’t dispense with the entire notion of positivity as a helpful factor in life, we do need to start making finer distinctions on how we chose to value ourselves and think about the world around us.
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