The two events seem totally unrelated but the latest thinking in academic psychology suggest they may actually be surprisingly closely linked. These are two arbitrary examples but are signifiers of practically all our behaviour!
This is because both are now thought to hinge on your view of the future. When you buy a lottery ticket you do so because of a judgment you are making about how likely it is you are to scoop a big prize. Those who don’t buy a ticket tend to assume the chances of winning are so remote, that it makes no sense to invest their money in the purchase of such a slim prospect.
Indeed much of what we do from moment to moment turns on our prediction of the future. We send our children to school because we believe that an education is likely to prove more useful to them in the future than otherwise. Our children frequently don’t study as hard as we would like them to because they are unable to share our view of the importance of education for their future. It’s differing predictions about the future that is driving contrasting behaviour. Unlike our kids, we have experienced the future in a sense and therefore know what its like to regret not having better qualifications when applying for jobs.
We endeavor to lose weight and become fitter because our prediction of the future is that if we do so, we will be more attractive, get more dates, or pull a more desirable billionaire as a result, and maybe as a bonus, even live longer than said aged billionaire.
It’s often more difficult to be successful in ventures like these if we are not clear about what the future holds for us depending on our efforts. People who tend to achieve their personal targets, as a general rule to be clearer about these goals, and about the consequences of failure.
The future is, in a very real sense, now. What you do now determines the future that beckons. What you do now in turn depends on your view of the future.
So it’s possible that those who struggle to achieve their goals, like losing weight, do so because their predictions of the future are hopelessly unrealistic. They believe that not sticking to the frequently necessary rigid exercise and diet plan will still produce success.
Researchers Zlatan Krizan and Paul Windschitl from the Department of Psychology,
University of Iowa recently published a review of this form of reasoning in the prestigious academic journal Psychological Bulletin. They argued that ‘wishful thinking’ could explain many hitherto perplexing conundrums, like why we don’t achieve our goals despite fervent wishes to so do.
One of the earliest ways that ‘wishful thinking’ was scientifically measured according to Krizan and Windschitl was in a famous psychological study investigating the 1932 United States presidential election. 93% of Roosevelt supporters when asked to anticipate the eventual result, predicted Roosevelt would win. Meanwhile 73% of Hoover supporters (the main other candidate) predicted their man would emerge the victor. One interpretation of this result suggests that a voter’s preference for a candidate was heavily biasing their prediction of the future.
Because they wanted their man to win voters also believed this would be the eventual result – a clear example of ‘wishful thinking’ in action.
Just because we would prefer something to happen in the future, we need to become more aware that this preference may be biasing us to shape our anticipation. Sure, we strongly desire to become thinner, but that doesn’t mean this will actually happen. Indeed in order to attain a goal, its often better to have a more realistic appraisal of the future in order to ensure we get what we want. If we understand that despite our desires we are unlikely to lose weight in the future if we continue to not exercise and eat without restraint, then this more sober analysis of our futures, devoid of ‘wishful thinking’ helps us to get where we want, because it galvanizes us to do what we really need to right now, to shape our future.
There is a lot of research evidence that whether we buy a lottery ticket or not has much less to do with our actual statistical chances of winning, and much more to do with the size of the prize available. It makes much less rational sense to make a lottery ticket purchasing decision on this basis. Yet this famous finding from psychological research reveals that what is going on here is ‘wishful thinking’ in full force and its being exploited by the lottery companies ruthlessly. Because we want to win that desirable prize, this biases our evaluation of the likelihood of our number coming up.
‘Wishful Thinking’ therefore is terribly dangerous to us but makes us feel good in the short term but conspires to trip us up and prevent us achieving our goals.
‘Wishful thinking’ is not a popular subject to discuss dispassionately because so much of our culture is invested in it. Practically every advert that courts your attention is rooted in ‘wishful thinking’ – that buying that expensive watch really will render you more attractive to women.
It may even come to be that the whole global financial crisis we are now in the grips of could be traced back to ‘wishful thinking’. It might be wishful thinking that led so many of us to take out loans assuming our future financial circumstances would allow us to do so safely. That normally sober and supposedly astute Bankers should have been prone to this same ‘wishful thinking’ in advancing so many risky loans foolishly, is testament to how powerful a process this is, and given the trouble it’s gotten the world into, how dangerous it is.
To guard against ‘wishful thinking’ start by becoming more aware of just what range of possible futures really are out there awaiting you. Then consider what factors determine whether these futures will happen. Now here is perhaps the most tricky bit, estimate what probability is attached to each of these factors. This doesn’t require a degree in calculus, just a rough sense of whether something is remotely unlikely (like an asteroid hitting the earth and saving you from that exam) compared to very likely (you succumbing to temptation of overeating if you accept the invitation to supper from your most obese friends).
In particular, focus on how much control you have over your future. It’s perhaps best to err on the side of assigning a higher probability to a bad outcome that you want to avoid. This may at first seem unduly pessimistic, but the key is that it drives you to take the necessary corrective action to ensure you are not unduly prone to ‘wishful thinking’ given how prevalent this is.
The darkest danger of wishful thinking is that it leads to complacency. We also know from previous psychological research that when we experience set backs believing that we can still produce an eventual good outcome if we redouble our personal efforts is indeed what tends to separate eventual winners from losers. The optimism about the future turns on a view that we can make a difference if we work hard enough. This is not the same as ‘wishful thinking’.
The future is indeed up for grabs, because it hasn’t happened yet and is still undetermined. But for it to be grabbable, by yourself you need to guard against wishful thinking which scuppers you by making you believe what you want is within your grasp while at the same time acting to push it away.
Isn’t this exactly what happened with the global financial crisis – and your waist line?
The Influence of Outcome Desirability on Optimism
Psychological Bulletin, Volume 133, Issue 1, January 2007, Pages 95-121
Zlatan Krizan, Paul D. Windschitl