How Positive Thinking Backfires

How Positive Thinking Backfires March 24, 2020

Hi and welcome back! Lately, we’ve been talking about the cult of positive thinking. That’s an ideology that insists that people must maintain a attitude of perfect positivity in order to affect reality itself with their very thoughts. And today, I’ll show you the harm this mindset produces.

sign: danger do not enter
(Raúl Nájera.)

(Previous posts in this series: Rethinking the Power of Positive Thinking; Toxic Positivity; The Secret: Background; The Secret: Mega-Review; The Experts of The SecretLegal Storms Around The Secret; False Claims of The Secret.)

The Need For Reality vs. Adaptive Illusions.

As far back as 1988, a paper for the Psychological Bulletin considered humans’ need for tethers to reality. In this paper, “Illusion and Well-Being,” Authors Shelley E. Taylor and Jonathan D. Brown declare in their very first sentence that “contact with reality” is “a hallmark of mental health.” But then they tell us:

A substantial amount of research testifies to the prevalence of illusion in normal human cognition. Moreover, these illusions often involve central aspects of the self and the environment and, therefore, cannot be dismissed as inconsequential.

They describe a “paradox” of what it is to be human:

  • To most successfully navigate our world and our society, we need accurate information perception and processing skills. All kinds of research leads here. It’s all but axiomatic in the mental-health world that realism leads to good functioning and mental health.
  • However, lots of other research indicates that we fall prey to all kinds of unrealistic and false ideas, especially about ourselves, our capabilities, our traits, and our potential, but also about our environment generally (and about others). Perhaps worse, many of these unrealistic/false ideas actually serve various functions for us, so seem adaptive in nature — whereas realism seems to correlate with depression and low self-esteem.

I can understand their concern!

The Three Basic Adaptive Illusions.

GM: Roll these two d20s.
Player: Am I wanting to roll high or low?
GM: Does it matter? Just roll.
Player: Not until I know how I need to psychically influence these dice.

— #JustTabletopThings

Taylor and Brown describe what they consider the three basic adaptive illusions:

  • Unrealistically positive views of the self
  • Exaggerated perceptions of personal control
  • Unrealistic optimism

And all three sound like components of the cult of positive thinking. It’s like the cult’s leaders designed their ideology according to this very list. Each one of these illusions figures very prominently in the classic “positive thinking = results” ideologies. (These include The Power of Positive Thinking, What the Bleep Do We Know, The Secret, Word of Faith/prosperity gospel in fundagelicalism, etc.)

Looking over that list, I notice that I’ve fallen into all of those traps at one point or another in my life. Really, I’m incredibly lucky just to be alive! I really think that fundagelicalism instilled these illusions in me with notions like prosperity gospel. It took many years to unlearn those bad mental habits and gain some balance.

Where Illusions Fail.

Eventually, Taylor and Brown concede that illusions may be a necessary component of mental health — so maybe the goal is to avoid going overboard with them.

Taylor and Brown provide a great many citations for research indicating that mentally/emotionally healthy people do indeed harbor many illusions about themselves. But the authors temper this information with cautionary scenarios. In these ways, illusions harm us:

For example, a falsely positive sense of accomplishment may lead people to pursue careers and interests for which they are ill-suited. Faith in one’s capacity to master situations may lead people to persevere at tasks that may, in fact, be uncontrollable; knowing when to abandon a task may be as important as knowing when to pursue it (Janoff-Bulman & Brickman, 1982). Unrealistic optimism may lead people to ignore legitimate risks in their environments and to fail to take measures to offset those risks. False optimism may, for example, lead people to ignore important health habits (Weinstein, 1982) or to fail to prepare for a likely catastrophic event, such as a flood or an earthquake (Lehman & Taylor, in press).

We don’t even need to look far to see an immediate example of what these authors discuss.

Lately, the fear of illness rightly sweeps many communities. Amid that fear, almost all of us have seen people who fail to heed health-experts’ advice — or who take ridiculous measures — because their illusions went too far.

Illusions’ Hard Fail in Healthcare.

A second paper, this one considerably more recent, details how these illusions feed into the self-help industry. From there, these illusions challenge healthcare providers with a serious ethics question.

Author Gabriel Andrades titled this paper “The ethics of positive thinking in healthcare,” with a PDF download site linked here. The Journal of Medical Ethics and History of Medicine published it last year. (This journal receives peer review, which allows its inclusion in the Emerging Sources Citation Index. I could probably do a whole other post about why peer review exists in real science writing but not in fundagelical scribblings. Maybe I will. I suddenly have all the time in the world for topics!)

In Andrades’ paper, he fires shots at the entire self-help industry. Interestingly, he connects that industry directly to New Thought. I’m not surprised. New Thought powerfully influenced the development of various self-help books through the years, including Rhonda Byrne’s 2006 money-grab The Secret. In turn, an 18th-century Christian movement called New Church influenced New Thought. (Yes, weirdness always seems to come back to Christian wackadoos.)

Though Andrades doesn’t talk about New Church, he does lay blame for New Thought on the Christian practice of theodicy, which is the attempt “to justify God’s ways to man,” which ends up trying “to present the world in an optimistic light. Perhaps the most notorious philosopher in this regard is Leibniz, who affirmed that this is by necessity ‘the best of all possible worlds.'” And he makes a good case for this sort of thinking being a harmful force.

His hypothesis:

[. . .] with some exceptions, positive thinking has increasingly become unethical in healthcare, and healthcare professionals need to be aware of this in order to make the necessary corrections.

Visualize World Cures.

Mostly, Andrades tackles the manifestations of positive thinking in cancer treatment. It’s certainly doing a lot of damage there!

The people who like this ideology have long claimed that stress might cause cancer — which means that ridding oneself of stress might prevent or cure it. Andrades names a number of proponents of this thinking, including Deepak Chopra. (It amazes me that self-help authors are legally allowed to push this idea at all.)

In truth, optimism does correlate to health to some degree: lower mortality rates, faster recovery rates, improved immune response.

However, Andrades points out that correlation doesn’t mean causation. It’s possible that having better health makes someone happier and more optimistic, not the other way around! Worse yet, despite oodles of group-therapy and therapy-based support offered to/pressed upon cancer patients, no research supports the idea that someone’s emotional state influences their chances of surviving and beating cancer.

So all this rah-rah isn’t doing tangible help, but it could be doing much tangible harm. (And he’s not the only one who thinks so.)

Visualize Violating Autonomy.

Andrades also objects to the way that care providers unwittingly violate cancer patients’ autonomy with this positive-thinking nonsense:

Sadness and stress in the face of adversity is a normal response, yet cancer patients are usually overly pressured not to feel sad. Joy becomes an obligation, and the concept of “mandatory fun” has an uncanny totalitarian aspect: patients are deprived of their emotional autonomy, and are forced to feel in a particular way.

I can attest to my mom feeling that way during the last part of her fight against cancer. A whole lot of people insisted that I force her to complete a bucket list — travel the world, take up with a nu-metal drummer, complete an Ironman, learn to do batik, whatever. They only wanted to see her smiling and upbeat, playing the ideal cancer warrior, fulfilling the societal narrative that made them, if not her, feel better about her being a living reminder of the frailty of human physicality.

These expectations placed a lot of burdens on my mom. This insistence on acting positive at all times stressed her out at a time when she needed her resources for much more important tasks.

I found the whole thing sickening and grotesque. People often treated her like a child. Thus, a big part of my “job,” as I saw it, was running interference for her against such well-meaning pests — and treating her like an adult who’d done her time and deserved full and final say regarding anything that she did or didn’t do.

And yes, again, I see a lot of similarities here to the fundagelical community I left behind — and to the positive-thinking gurus I’ve heard so far.

The Ostracism of Reminders.

I discovered that God doesn’t really mix well with chronic illness. God’s people don’t either. [. . .] I got ostracised.

an ex-Christian on Reddit

Andrades mentions, as well, that communities built around positive thinking often teach members to ostracise people who don’t play along with their Happy Pretendy Fun Time Game.

There’s definitely a place for removing people from your life if they do nothing but drag you down and refuse to accept some course-correction. But that’s not what’s happening here. Instead, Andrades points to cancer support groups who draw upon exactly that teaching to expel members who develop metastasis! Yikes, right when they need support the most, they’re cast out!

And yes, here too I see many similarities between what Andrades discusses and the communities I’ve seen that followed similar ideologies.

For instance, ask Christians suffering a chronic illness in a Word of Faith-style church what happens if they don’t get magically healed within an expected (and relatively short) amount of time. They’ll give you back an earful. Churches like sick/injured people who get the “happy ending,” as one ex-Christian on that thread called it. Anybody who doesn’t — or who doesn’t want to play along with that reindeer game at all, as our intro quote relates — discovers that soon enough, their church family starts withdrawing from them.

And the Opportunity Costs of Positive Thinking.

Last of all, and very possibly the worst outgrowth of this entire cult of positive thinking, is this: people buying too much into this ideology often decide not to pursue real treatment or options for their problems. Instead, they cocoon themselves in swathes of magical thinking. By the time they realize their mistake, it’s often way too late.

Andrades has a mouthful to say about this (and wow, he despises The Secret about as much as I do). These hugely unethical hucksters tell desperate people to think their cancer away — or to dream themselves rich — or to give their anger to Jesus. This stuff doesn’t work. And when it doesn’t, the blame gets laid on the desperate people trying it, not the irresponsible gits who told them to do it in the first place.

That victim-blaming only makes those desperate people feel even worse — which ironically spins them into even more negative thinking!

Yeah, I’ve been there too. Many, many times.

Just All Around Unethical.

I’m not sure we’ll ever get fully rid of this positive thinking trash. It’s simply too powerful a pull for people who lack resources to get what they need in real, legitimate ways. And it drags along itself centuries of inertia and bad teachings to create a facade of effectiveness that looks very convincing to people already trained to believe in magical thinking.

Worse, the far reaches of scientific understanding recede further every day from regular people’s understanding. The more difficult-to-understand and far-out science gets, the more woo hucksters can draw upon misunderstood manglings of it to further confuse their marks and potential recruits. SEE? SEE? It does TOO work! Look at our (poorly-designed, misconstrued) studies!

Things get worse when we combine those bad teachings with our natural human propensity to create and believe various illusions about ourselves and our world.

It’s hard to resist the combo, for many.

But We Must Resist.

And yet I can see just from the headlines today that we must brace ourselves against the power of positive thinking.

It’s not just a game of who believes what anymore, if it ever was. False beliefs can actually kill, in times of distress. This is one of those times. More than ever, we must ensure we get our information from the real world, accurately process it, and then act upon it in the best possible ways.

Stay strong, friends.

Get your info from trusted sources. If it’s at all possible, report people who are spreading woo online — especially about health — to social media Powers That Be.

NEXT UP: Why Christians’ non-solutions for their decline sound so comical — and why they’re guaranteed not to work. See you tomorrow!


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About
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even volunteered in church (choir, Sunday School) and married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. And she still can't carry a note in a bucket. You can read more about the author here.
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