Friday, April 29, 2016

Wishful thinking: When we see only what we want to see

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A psychoanalyst believed that dreaming of fish was the cause of all psychological disorders. When patients came to him and began to talk about their problems, the analyst interrupted them and asked:

Psychoanalyst: Excuse me, but did you dream last night?

Patient: I do not know... Yes, I think so.

Psychoanalyst: You have dreamed of fish, didn’t you?

Patient: Ah... no, no.

Psychoanalyst: What did you dream then?

Patient: Well, I dreamed I was walking along a road.

Psychoanalyst: Was there a puddle on the road?

Patient: Well ... I do not know.

Psychoanalyst: But, could there have been one?

Patient: I think so.

Psychoanalyst: There could have been some fish in that puddle?

Patient: No, no.

Psychoanalyst: On the road of your dream there was any restaurant?

Patient: No.

Psychoanalyst: But there may have been one...

Patient: Well, I think maybe there could be a restaurant.

Psychoanalyst: Do they served any fish at that restaurant?

Patient: Well, I think as a restaurant perhaps they served some fish.

Psychoanalyst: Aha! I knew it! You dreamed fish.

Neither rational nor logical

When we want something, we try to find ways to get it, and the thought is the main tool we have to decide which direction take. Each of these decisions will gradually approaching or moving us away from what we want. As the psychoanalyst of the story, we trust those decisions because we believe that our thinking is logical and rational, we do not consider that it is profoundly influenced by our desires, expectations and dreams.

In fact, the desire tells us that we are missing something, and wishful thinking is the mental response to that need. The problem is that sometimes this desire is so great that thought becomes its slave. Then we are not able to see the signs that we're going off the road, we see only what we want to see and draw the conclusions we want, ignoring the reality. And this can cause us serious problems.

The pitfalls of wishful thinking

Wishful thinking comes from desire, not from reality, so often become a source of many problems in our daily lives.

- Ensures that we focus too much into results. Wishful thinking is mostly concrete, is aimed at achieving a goal in the shortest time possible. That sense of urgency caused by desire is dangerous, it prevents us from planning properly and perceive the signals we are on the wrong road. Basically, the wishful thinking gives us the logical justifications we need to make mistakes and take the path we want, even if it is not the best one or convenient.

- Prevents us from seeing evidence and obstacles. Wishful thinking makes sure that we draw conclusions and make decisions based on what we like, rather than analyzing the details taking reality into account. This kind of thinking is based on emotions rather than on evidence. The basic problem is that we want so much for something to happen or be true to reject evidence of the contrary. In fact, a study conducted at the University of New York showed that wishful thinking feeds fantasies about our future that we focus more on benefits than disadvantages, and at the end, we take worst decisions.

- Cause great frustrations. One of the main problems caused by wishful thinking is that we end up living in the fantasy world that we built in our mind, based on erroneous conclusions that we have taken. In practice, it is as if we lived in a house of cards. Obviously, as soon as the wind blows that castle falls. Then we are overwhelmed by frustration, disappointment and sadness.

Why do we allow wishful thinking take the reins?

A study at the University of Illinois showed that our thinking goes something like memory. That is, sometimes distorts some memories forgetting some details and adding new ones because it appears us more convenient and to avoid painful memories, or to consolidate the image we have of ourselves, avoiding dissonances.

These psychologists asked a group of people to read a set of predictions, some were very convenient for them while others absolutely negative. The task of each participant was determine the reliability of the source. Interestingly, people tended to indicate that the most convenient statements came from reliable sources, while negative predictions were attributed to unreliable sources. In practice, our desire to ensure that things are working well makes us lose the perspective.

We can also let wishful thinking take the reins to avoid having to deal with a complex reality, that we are not willing to accept. When things do not work as we would like, instead of accepting reality we decide to look only at what we like and confirms our view of the world. That way we feel better.

Of course, this mechanism works normally at a subconscious level.

How to use the wishful thinking in our favor?

Wishful thinking in itself is not negative, it is only necessary to learn how to use it for our advantage. In fact, the desire that lies at its base has an enormous motivating power which we can exploit through the WOOP technique (Wish, Outcome, Obstacle and Plan):

1. Wish. Think of something you want intensely. That desire becomes an achievable goal. Keep in mind that while desire can be vague and general, the goal should be concrete and quantifiable.

2. Outcome. Imagine the best possible outcome, let yourself be filled with a feeling of accomplishment.

3. Obstacle. Come back to reality, concentrate in the obstacles that keep you from achieving this goal and choose the greatest.

4. Plan. Think of possible solutions and select a concrete and effective action that will allow you to overcome this obstacle.

Kappes, H. B. & Oettingen, G. (2012) Wishful Information Preference. Positive Fantasies Mimic the Effects of Intentions. Pers Soc Psychol Bull; 38(7): 870-881.
Gordon, R. et. Al. (2005) Wishful thinking and source monitoring. Memory & Cognition; 33(3): 418-429.


Keep feeding your neurons

Wishful thinking: When we see only what we want to see
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Jennifer Delgado Suárez

Psicologist by profession and passion, dedicated to to string words together. Discover my Books


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