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    I think I can’t. I think I can’t. Oh… oops, I was wrong.

    From the “I couldn’t have said it better” department comes this op-ed from Barbara Ehrenreich that was in the New York Times on the 24th of September.

    Lifted, verbatim, with great appreciation…

    The Power of Negative Thinking

    GREED — and its crafty sibling, speculation — are the designated culprits for the financial crisis. But another, much admired, habit of mind should get its share of the blame: the delusional optimism of mainstream, all-American, positive thinking.

    As promoted by Oprah Winfrey, scores of megachurch pastors and an endless flow of self-help best sellers, the idea is to firmly believe that you will get what you want, not only because it will make you feel better to do so, but because “visualizing” something — ardently and with concentration — actually makes it happen. You will be able to pay that adjustable-rate mortgage or, at the other end of the transaction, turn thousands of bad mortgages into giga-profits if only you believe that you can.

    Positive thinking is endemic to American culture — from weight loss programs to cancer support groups — and in the last two decades it has put down deep roots in the corporate world as well. Everyone knows that you won’t get a job paying more than $15 an hour unless you’re a “positive person,” and no one becomes a chief executive by issuing warnings of possible disaster.

    The tomes in airport bookstores’ business sections warn against “negativity” and advise the reader to be at all times upbeat, optimistic, brimming with confidence. It’s a message companies relentlessly reinforced — treating their white-collar employees to manic motivational speakers and revival-like motivational events, while sending the top guys off to exotic locales to get pumped by the likes of Tony Robbins and other success gurus. Those who failed to get with the program would be subjected to personal “coaching” or shown the door.

    The once-sober finance industry was not immune. On their Web sites, motivational speakers proudly list companies like Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch among their clients. What’s more, for those at the very top of the corporate hierarchy, all this positive thinking must not have seemed delusional at all. With the rise in executive compensation, bosses could have almost anything they wanted, just by expressing the desire. No one was psychologically prepared for hard times when they hit, because, according to the tenets of positive thinking, even to think of trouble is to bring it on.

    Americans did not start out as deluded optimists. The original ethos, at least of white Protestant settlers and their descendants, was a grim Calvinism that offered wealth only through hard work and savings, and even then made no promises at all. You might work hard and still fail; you certainly wouldn’t get anywhere by adjusting your attitude or dreamily “visualizing” success.

    Calvinists thought “negatively,” as we would say today, carrying a weight of guilt and foreboding that sometimes broke their spirits. It was in response to this harsh attitude that positive thinking arose — among mystics, lay healers and transcendentalists — in the 19th century, with its crowd-pleasing message that God, or the universe, is really on your side, that you can actually have whatever you want, if the wanting is focused enough.

    When it comes to how we think, “negative” is not the only alternative to “positive.” As the case histories of depressives show, consistent pessimism can be just as baseless and deluded as its opposite. The alternative to both is realism — seeing the risks, having the courage to bear bad news and being prepared for famine as well as plenty. We ought to give it a try.

    Barbara Ehrenreich is the author, most recently, of “This Land Is Their Land: Reports From a Divided Nation.”

    13 Responses to “I think I can’t. I think I can’t. Oh… oops, I was wrong.”

    1. Ron Grubaugh Says:

      I think you already have said it better. Ms. Ehrenreich is including new thought, positive thinking and possibly good old fashioned misguided optimism in one nebulous mass. New thought steps boldly accross a line that Norman Vincent Peale never crossed (to my knowledge). Notwithstanding, it’s always nice to hear another voice taking a jab at this nonsense.

      But regarding the implicit hypothesis that our current crisis can in some way be attributed to the proliferation of new thought, that’s very intriguing. I haven’t the foggiest how I would determine if there is any truth to that. What do you think of that specifically? How would you support it?

      And further (in jest of course) how does that little incident with the Titanic fit in? Ron

    2. Ed Says:

      Wasn’t there something about how those of us in the ‘school of reality’ didn’t understand that the neocons were ‘making a new reality’? I don’t think it’s just the financial markets that have taken optimism over realism to disasterous consequences….

    3. ellen Says:

      An increasingly frequent occurrence at work is that anything expressed that does not enthusiastically endorse every utterance of the person on the next level of hierarchy is ‘Negative Thinking’– almost a sin. My thoughts, less and less often expressed in the face of this are:
      Ever heard of feedback? The ability to discriminate? A different viewpoint? Isn’t this the way totalitarianism begins?
      Strange days.
      T Humphreys wrote a good book, The Power of Negative Thinking.

    4. ellen Says:

      I like a jest, Ron Grubaugh,

      Its our old friends the absolutes again, Unsinkable Absolutes.


    5. sashen Says:

      “Watch out for that bus that’s about to hit and kill you!”

      “Why do you have to be so negat–“

    6. ellen Says:


    7. Ron Grubaugh Says:

      I was thinking more about unbridled optimism than absolutism, but hey, you have a good point. The two together can kill twice as many people as either one by itself.

      I just had been thinking that the Titanic is a marvelous peice of evidence for the independence of expectation and outcome. But only if you feel a need, out of politeness, to provide evidence against absolute nonsence.

    8. ellen Says:

      Evidence? Shmevidence.

      Mr Sashen does very good work.
      Almost as good as my old teacher.
      Fancy a pot noodle?

    9. sashen Says:

      The world needs more schmevidence.

      And pot noodles.

    10. Janet Says:


      Did you see this new article? July 2009 Times Online.

      Positive thinking has a negative side, scientists find

      Repeating positive phrases may backfire when used by the very people who are in need of them the most, a study suggests

      “It appears that positive self-statements, despite their widespread endorsement, may backfire for the very people who need them the most,”

    11. sashen Says:

      Thanks for the pointer, Janet!

      I love that someone finally did a study to show what should be screamingly obvious: If you walk around lying to yourself (e.g. saying “I have a thin and beautiful body” when you could win the Jabba the Hut look-a-like contest), it doesn’t make you happier or, more “positive.”

    12. Janet Says:


      “In her new book, Bright-Sided: How Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, – Barbara Ehrenreich calls positive thinking a “mass delusion.” She argues that an unrelenting drive to train our brains to overlook problems and blame ourselves for failures has blinded us to inequality, incompetence, and stupidity.”

      Europeans are growing happier, especially Italians, Americans are not.

      Last year 4,000 books were published on happiness, up from 50 in 2000.

      Ehrenreich dedicates her book to “complainers everywhere,” inciting them to “turn up the volume.”

      The most recent findings, for example, are that wealth makes you happy but children do not.

    13. sashen Says:

      Needless to say, I can’t wait to read Barbara’s book.

      There are numerous studies showing the various ways that positive thinking leads to anything BUT positive outcomes.

      Because of various cognitive biases (confirmation bias, for one), it’s amazingly hard to get someone who believes in positive thinking to question, let alone change, that belief.





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