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How wishful thinking impacts our decisions in times of stress

We’ve all fallen for a little wishful thinking – those perfect scenarios playing out in our minds where problems vanish and everything falls neatly into place. It feels good, right? But did you know wishful thinking can go too far and actually make things harder?

A new study led by the University of Amsterdam takes a deep dive into this common human quirk. It explores how wishful thinking arises in times of anxiety and how it might hold us back from taking necessary actions.

Wishful thinking under pressure

“People aren’t purely truth-seekers – many beliefs are influenced by emotions and driven by what is pleasant or comforting,” says Joël van der Weele, professor of Economic Psychology.

That’s the idea behind wishful thinking. It sounds harmless but can have a real impact on our decisions. So, the real question is: Does wishful thinking really lead us astray?

Professor van der Weele, collaborator Jan Engelmann (professor of Neuroeconomics), and a team of researchers set out to answer this definitively.

“So far studies haven’t provided clear evidence for wishful thinking,” explains Engelmann. “But these mainly focused on positive outcomes, like winning a lottery. We examined how both positive and negative outcomes influence biased beliefs.”

When “wrong” feels so right

The researchers recruited over 1,700 individuals for a series of experiments. The setup was simple: participants were shown a set of visual patterns (something like stripes or colored dots). Then, they’d link some patterns to a negative outcome – a small electric shock or a loss of money.

The scientists wanted to track if people messed up identifying those negative patterns more often, essentially wishing them out of existence.

The results were a resounding yes. Participants truly struggled to see the patterns with scary consequences. This is powerful evidence that anxiety can literally warp how we perceive the world. Imagine the danger if this translates to the decisions we make in our everyday lives.

Can we ground ourselves against wishful thinking?

The good news is, there are ways to fight back. Here’s what helped in the study:

Clearer information

Unsurprisingly, when the patterns were easier to see, people were less prone to making “hopeful” mistakes.

When participants could take time to really look at a pattern, wishful thinking decreased significantly (especially with a potential reward for getting it right).

This tells us slowing down on big decisions is super important, allowing for careful analysis over fleeting feelings.

Turn down the fear 

Essentially, when the participants were faced with potential positive outcomes instead of negative ones, their wishful thinking disappeared.

This suggests that the root of wishful thinking often lies in our emotional response to potential outcomes, particularly our fear and anxiety.

When we’re anxious or afraid, our brains may engage in wishful thinking as a coping mechanism, helping us avoid the discomfort of considering negative possibilities.

It’s like our mind puts on rose-colored glasses to shield us from the harsh light of potential threats or disappointments. However, when the threat is replaced with a possibility for something good, the need for this psychological defense falls away.

We no longer need to “hope for the best” in a situation where the best is already a likely outcome.

Wishful thinking: The real world messiness

“Wishful thinking is important for humans in coping with anxiety about possible future events,” says Engelmann.

It’s a normal, even sometimes helpful, mental buffer. It’s those “out of sight, out of mind” situations we need to watch out for.

“People can get too hopeful when things are uncertain,” warns Dr. van der Weele.

Think about ignoring major problems like climate change, not planning for financial hardship, or putting off a concerning medical check-up because we desperately hope for the best.

These are the situations where wishful thinking crosses the line from harmless escape to potential disaster.

The takeaway

Wishful thinking is a part of being human. It’s a good reminder that our emotions can color our view of reality, especially when we’re stressed.

In those moments, taking a breath, getting more information, seeking expert opinions, and minimizing fear can help us make the best choices for ourselves and our future.

After all, sometimes the most responsible action is to face what scares us head-on.

The study is published in the journal American Economic Review.


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