Americans are a profoundly optimistic people. While it’s part of the national mythology that it makes us resilient, it comes with a price. As Susan Webber noted in “The Dark Side of Optimism“:
Overly positive thinking is difficult to reconcile with the need to make realistic, objective assessments. Finding the right balance between healthy optimism and delusion is harder than one might imagine, for both individuals and institutions.
And despite years—decades—of sobering examples, we don’t seem to be any closer to that balance. The recent recklessness
of residential and commercial real-estate lending was in plain view, and a vocal minority wrote about it. But the financial and business communities dismissed all the warnings, insisting that any damage—should it ever arrive—would be contained to the subprime sector. The folly was obvious: Even if decision-makers had deemed the grim forecasts to be of low probability, the potential outcomes were so dire that they demanded contingency plans…
We acknowledge these problems and their seriousness—and then put them out of mind. Instead of treating worrisome developments as new information and looking dispassionately at the risks, we tend to avoid working through downside scenarios because they are upsetting. It’s simply easier to put on blinkers and believe everything will work out than to confront the complexities of modern life.
“Negativity,” an awkward coinage, has widely come to be used pejoratively. Magical thinking, too, has become increasingly
popular as a way to gain the illusion of control in an uncertain world. Rhonda Byrne’s motivational best-seller The Secret, for example, basically says that you get what you wish for. If you don’t have the things you want, it means you don’t have enough faith. In this construct, neither insufficient effort nor bad luck plays a role…..
The end result is a bias against critical thinking. It’s hard enough, in the delicate social web of most organizations, to question the merits of any given proposal offered in good faith. But now decision-makers stagger under the weight of larger social trends and management fads that favor belief and force of personality over dispassionate analysis. Detached, rigorous thinking simply doesn’t fit any of our cultural models.
The piece discusses the well documented conflict between optimism and ability to make realistic assessments (particularly of one’s abilities) and other cognitive biases.
That article ran in early 2008. It’s becoming more popular to question optimism as its costs mount. A different angle is a defense of stoicism in “For a happier life, shake off your misplaced optimism,” by Alain de Botton.
It’s too bad that stoicism has fallen by the wayside, since it (like Buddhism) acknowledges the difficulty of the human condition and has its own strategy for cultivating inner calm. In contrast to our modern hedonistic orientation of focusing on happiness (elusive at best) and hoping we are lucky. Stoics stress reason over emotion, and the pursuit of virtue as the source of well being.
From the Financial Times:
It has been clear for a while, at least since the first talk started about “green shoots” of recovery, that what we have to fear above all is hope…
It is time to recognise how odd and counter-productive is the optimism on which we have grown up. For the last 200 years, despite occasional shocks, the western world has been dominated by a belief in progress, based on its extraordinary scientific and entrepreneurial achievements. On a broader perspective, this optimism is a grave anomaly. Humans have spent most of recorded history drawing a curious comfort from expecting the worst. In the west, lessons in pessimism have derived from two sources: Roman Stoic philosophy and Christianity. It may be time to revisit some of these teachings, not to add to our misery but precisely so as to alleviate our sorrow.
To focus on the first of these sources, the philosopher Seneca should be the author of the hour. Living in a time of financial and political upheaval (Nero was on the Imperial throne), Seneca interpreted philosophy as a discipline to keep us calm against a backdrop of continuous danger. His consolation was of the stiffest, darkest sort: “You say: ‘I did not think it would happen.’ Do you think there is anything that will not happen, when you know that it is possible to happen, when you see that it has already happened … ?” Seneca tried to calm the sense of injustice in his readers by reminding them – in AD62 – that natural and man-made disasters will always be a feature of our lives, however sophisticated and safe we think we have become.
If we do not dwell on the risk of sudden calamity, in the money markets or elsewhere, and pay a price for our innocence, it is because reality comprises two cruelly confusing characteristics: on the one hand, continuity and reliability lasting decades; on the other, unheralded cataclysms. We find ourselves divided between a plausible invitation to assume that tomorrow will be much like today and the possibility that we will meet with an appalling event,….
Because we are hurt most by what we do not expect, and because we must expect everything (“There is nothing which Fortune does not dare”), we must, argued Seneca, hold the possibility of the most obscene events in mind at all times. No one should make an investment, undertake to run a company, sit on a board or leave money in a bank without an awareness, which Seneca would have wished to be neither gruesome nor unnecessarily dramatic, of the darkest possibilities.
Given our financial prowess, we have for too long thought of ourselves as in control of our destiny. We have trusted in the mathematical geniuses who promised us “risk management” and fashioned derivatives so complex we dared not look inside. Such trust could not be further from a Stoic mindset. We must, stressed Seneca, expand our sense of what may go wrong in our lives: “Nothing ought to be unexpected by us. Our minds should be sent forward in advance to meet all the problems, and we should consider, not what is wont to happen, but what can happen. What is man? A vessel that the slightest shaking, the slightest toss will break. A body weak and fragile.”
Christianity only backed up the Stoic message. It pointed out that while humans might strive for perfection, it is a problem – indeed a sin – to suppose that such perfection can ever occur on earth. Nothing human can ever be free of blemishes. There cannot be an end to boom and bust, mayhem and death.
We have tended to cast such gloomy messages aside. The modern bourgeois philosophy pins its hopes firmly on two great presumed ingredients of happiness, love and work. But there is vast unthinking cruelty discreetly coiled within this magnanimous assurance that everyone will discover satisfaction here. It is not that these two entities are invariably incapable of delivering fulfilment, only that they almost never do so for too long.
When an exception is misrepresented as a rule, our individual misfortunes, instead of seeming to us quasi-inevitable aspects of life, weigh down on us like particular curses. In denying the natural place reserved for longing and disaster in the human lot, the bourgeois ideology denies us the possibility of collective consolation for our fractious marriages, unexploited ambitions and exploded portfolios, and condemns us instead to solitary feelings of shame and persecution for having stubbornly failed to make more of ourselves.
We should, of course, instead remember the great pessimistic voices of history. There are two quotes I cherish for these sorts of times. One is from Seneca: “What need is there to weep over parts of life? The whole of it calls for tears.” The other is from the French moralist Chamfort: “A man should swallow a toad every morning to be sure of not meeting with anything more revolting in the day ahead.”