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Wishful thinking, or dismissing beliefs that make us uncomfortable, even if they’re true, is a common human weakness. Find out how a new study examined how we tend to avoid thinking about negative consequences and how we can learn to manage this familiar tendency.

By David Morton RintoulPublished 2 months ago 4 min read

I’d been working for the same company for twenty years. Then, rumours started circulating that management was about to shut down our entire division.

The evidence for this rumour kept building, and I kept dismissing it. After all, I told myself, there had always been rumours like that, and none of them had ever affected me.

Then, one fateful day, the axe fell. The president called us all into the conference room and dismissed every one of us in a five minute meeting, after which we cleared out our desks and were walked out the door.


I’d fallen victim to a very common human weakness – wishful thinking. I didn’t want to believe that the rumours about our layoff were true, so I chose to dismiss them.

Sigmund Freud theorized that wishful thinking was a defence mechanism rooted in our subconscious minds. He argued that we try to maintain psychological balance by denying or distorting reality in favour of more comforting ideas.

Leon Festinger introduced the concept of cognitive dissonance. That’s the idea that conflicting beliefs make us uncomfortable, leading us to rationalize or justify our more positive and familiar beliefs.


Dr. Jan Engelmann has been studying how behavioural and neural factors influence how we make business decisions for the past 16 years. He’s currently working as a professor of neuro-economics at the University of Amsterdam.

Professor Engelmann is the lead author of a study that the journal American Economic Review published this week. The study found that when situations make us feel anxious or insecure, we become overly optimistic, which can keep us from responding appropriately to hazards.

“So far studies haven’t provided clear evidence for wishful thinking, with many not backing up the idea,’ Professor Engelmann explained. “But these mainly focused on positive outcomes, like winning a lottery. We examined how both positive and negative outcomes influence biased beliefs.”


Or, as study co-author, Dr. Joel Van Der Weele put it, “People aren’t purely truth-seekers – many beliefs are influenced by emotions and driven by what is pleasant or comforting. Like belief in an afterlife or optimism about health outcomes.”

The researchers involved over 1,700 participants, some online and others in the lab. They showed the participants various patterns like stripes or dots and asked them which patterns they recognized.

Seeing some of the patterns meant a negative outcome for the participants, like a very mild and harmless shock in the lab or losing a bet online. Participants consistently failed to recognize patterns connected to negative consequences.


“We wanted to see if people make more mistakes in recognizing patterns associated with a negative outcome, thinking it was actually a harmless pattern,” explained Professor Van der Weele. That would indicate wishful thinking,”

“The participants tended to see a pattern that aligned with what was more desirable,’ Professor Engelmann added. “Previous research looked at wishful thinking related to positive outcomes and found mixed results, with many studies not finding an effect. Our study demonstrates very clearly that the negative emotion of anxiety about an outcome leads to wishful thinking.”

The scientists also tried to find out if interventions could reduce wishful thinking in the participants. First they made the patterns easier for participants to recognize, which did make their views more realistic.


Then, the team improved the positive payoff for recognizing the pattern correctly. This didn’t accomplish much unless the researchers also gave participants more time to gather information and make more informed decisions.

The scientists also tried using positive instead of negative outcomes. This completely eliminated any wishful thinking, suggesting that we can cope with wishful thinking by managing our negative emotions.

Wishful thinking isn’t all bad. It helps us cope with negative emotions and unavoidable risks.


When we were all hunter gatherers, wishful thinking seems to have given us an adaptive advantage in a hazardous natural world. Those who believed in positive outcomes, even when there were risks involved, managed to overcome obstacles and accomplish essential goals.

So, wishful thinking seems to be part of what makes us human. Optimism gives us resilience in the face of the adversity of life, contributes to our mental health and improves our relationships.

The problem arises when we use wishful thinking to indulge in denial. That’s what’s behind the resistance we see proven scientific facts like global warming, vaccination, evolution and even the shape of our planet.

Professor Engelmann concluded by saying, “People can get too hopeful when things are uncertain. We observe this happening with climate change, when financial markets fluctuate, and even in personal health situations when people avoid medical help because they think everything will be fine. We need to know more about when wishful thinking helps and when it hurts.’

We always have more to learn if we dare to know.

Learn more:

Making the future too bright

Anticipatory Anxiety and Wishful Thinking

Consumer Choices Don’t Always Make Sense

Subjective Memories Drive Our Decision Making

Creative People More Engaged During Idle Time


About the Creator

David Morton Rintoul

I'm a freelance writer and commercial blogger, offering stories for those who find meaning in stories about our Universe, Nature and Humanity. We always have more to learn if we Dare to Know.

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