Many of us have heard the message that if we aren’t our best, we aren’t anything at all. Like all organisms, we try to make the best choices available to us. There are lots of self-help books out there offering to help guide you to your success; just look at your local bookstore or on line. Most are just sweetened up versions of an old psychological concept called the “Confirmation Bias.” The Confirmation Bias has been extensively researched, i.e., researchers have known about it for decades. It also makes a hell of a lot more sense than the “Thoughts as Energy Vibrations” theory.
As human beings, we have a limited attention span for all the stuff going on around us. Therefore, whether we realize it or not (usually not), we are always choosing what grabs our attention. Confirmation Bias is described as the human mind’s tendency to notice and pay more attention to objects and experiences that match its preexisting thoughts and beliefs. It does this for the simple reason that it is evolutionarily effective.
We’ve all experienced Confirmation Bias a zillion times and never realized it. You spend years not paying attention to what kind of cars people drive, but when the time comes for you to start thinking about buying a car, you start noticing the make and model of cars all over the place. You begin deciding you like this style or that for the first time. You start noticing these details because now they are pertinent to your goal of buying a car. Before, they weren’t interesting; now they consume you.
Imagine that a close friend breaks your trust and you have a real blowout. Out of the blue, you find yourself reviewing things and you notice all sorts of sketchy behavior from your friend. You never noticed, or even thought about, any of it before. You find yourself shocked that you overlooked it all. Because you trusted your friend, you didn’t notice them; now that they have lost your trust, you see a long trail of red flags leading backward and forward.
Most of your self-help books try to leverage confirmation bias to your advantage. The idea is that if you’re constantly thinking positive thoughts, you will begin to notice little things in your life that confirm these beliefs, and in turn, facilitating their coming true. On the other hand, if you’re repetitively thinking negative things about yourself, the negative feedback in your environment, in turn, stands out to you, making you feel worse.
Most self-help suggests that people feign the characteristics of the person they hope to become, to actually believe that they are already wealthy, already a size 2 and healthy, already in a picture-perfect relationship. Basically, they tell you to become falsely positive about yourself for such a long enough period of time that your natural Confirmation Bias becomes engaged and you only attend to the things in your life on par with these new beliefs.
This actually can be beneficial—at least at first—for people who have some pretty damaged and delusional destructive attitudes about themselves. Simply changing the way you see things from “always crappy” to “always wonderful” would undoubtedly influence these people in a lot of critical areas. But at some point, you actually have to, you know, work; Conceive, Believe, Achieve only works if there is a lot of very diligent and hard work between Believe and Achieve!
How Self-Help Theory Can Mess You Up
Most of the programs require that you never doubt yourself. It is part and parcel to never contemplating negative consequences, and never humoring negative beliefs. This is the Confirmation Bias on steroids and it can be treacherous. It includes any of the following and more:
- Engaging in uncertain business ventures.
- Making risky investments.
- Disregarding red flag conducts in relationship partners.
- Disregarding personal problems.
- Ignoring health issues (ask Steve Jobs about this one).
- Avoiding necessary confrontations.
- Failing to weigh in and take steps to limit the possibility of failure.
In any decision-making process, as in life, these actions foster very risky behavior.
While this sort of “delusionally positive” view may make you feel better in many/most situations, as a long-term life strategy it is fantastically disastrous.
Here’s one example of how the confirmation-bias-with-good-intentions strategy could go horribly wrong. Let’s say you are working on a book, the Great American Novel, and you think your storyline is the hot ticket. Your book might inspire hundreds of millions, even billions of people and you could be rich, famous, and loved by all. You talk to four editors about the book; two of them suggest that the book is just fabulous, two of them say it needs a LOT of work to achieve Great American Novel status. But you read The Secret (not to pick heartlessly on this one alone) and you told The Universe that you would write the Great American Novel. So you plow ahead with your book, ignoring the constructively critical editors, pouring brainpower, your time, and precious resources into it for months. You rationalize the negative results away because doubting yourself is indistinguishable to doubting The Universe, and no one messes with The Universe, right? And yet, the truth is, not only are you not getting any closer to having a publishable book, (most editors know their work), you’re also heading down the fruitless rabbit hole of a terrible book. And for what? To feel better about yourself? Tell me how that is going to work?
Take your romantic life. You might send the “Thought Frequency” to The Universe that you desire someone who is kind, generous, and thoughtful. Lo and behold, you find someone who appears kind, generous, and thoughtful and you’re wild with excitement at the prospect; your excitement at finding your new lover knows no bounds… But, in reality, yes, your new partner is kind and generous and thoughtful, they’re also kind of a screw up. They’re lazy and can’t hold down a job. And in your “delusionally positive” mentality, you opt to ignore all of those red flags and appalling behaviors, and you get yourself heart-deep into a relationship that is going to be about as good for your emotional stability as the recent floods were for Denham Springs. And no, President Obama still doesn’t care about the killings in Chicago.
But this medicament for “delusionally positive” thinking can sometimes have negative effects for people as well. Research indicates that trying to suppress thoughts about something only makes those thoughts more likely to recur. In fact, rumination and preoccupation happen to operate in this manner, particularly in people with chronic disorders like OCD, Depression, and Anxiety; the more you try to get rid of unwanted thoughts, the more these thoughts dominate your mental space.
It’s as if I tell you, “don’t think about a pink giraffe!” and the first thing that pops into your mind is a pink giraffe. Thinking about the things you do not want to think about can lead to more negative thinking and put you in an awful cycle of negativity.
Research also shows that actively engaging in overly positive thinking, like when you imagine getting a job, doing well on an exam, or even successfully recovering after surgery (without doing the requisite work), can actually result in poorer outcomes. Psychologists think that this type of delusional positive thinking makes us complacent, as though we have already accomplished something we have yet to accomplish, causing us to put forth less effort and to feel less motivated. It is a way of taking the rewards for a job well done without doing the work.
Other studies show that people who engage in “self-affirmations” and are then presented with information that threatens their affirmation (even healthy constructive criticism or feedback) actually engage in more seriously faulty reasoning than people who don’t use self-affirmation. In fact, people who indulge in “delusional positive thinking” poignantly can become openly combative in the face of contradictory thoughts that challenge their wall of delusion. The truth about their situation just becomes that much more painful to them, and in an effort to protect themselves, they avoid it.
Ironically, delusional positive thinking generates a peculiarly closed-mindedness in people. They have to be vigilant and block out potentially negative feedback or criticism of their beliefs, even if that negative feedback is critically important to their health and well-being.
On top of that, as I have suggested in previous blogs, most people are poor at predicting what will make them happy or miserable. So, by using the law of attraction, we might spend all this time and energy building a “future life” that isn’t what we want at all.
Ultimately, the ‘Law of Attraction’ states that if you just think about what you want, it will come to you; when taken to its logical extreme, it encourages you to always be wanting something, to never be content, and this can make you less happy in the long run. At some point, we must all come to terms with the challenges in our lives, because we all have them. Then having come to terms and accepted them, do the hard work to change direction, if necessary, and make our life what we want it to be. Do the work. This, ironically, is a more logical path to success than simply wishing incessantly for all of your dreams to come true. Don’t wish for good rewards. Wish for good problems. When you find those good problems then work for good solutions, which in turn will bring you good rewards,
Make your life what you want it to be. It’s up to you, not The Universe.
SEE A LIFE COACH IN BATON ROUGE
Frank Hopkins is a life coach in Baton Rouge who is certified as a Professional Coach (CPC) by the Institute for Professional Excellence in Coaching (iPEC). Frank has helped numerous people to go through emotional change in a way that is positively transformative.