Optimism and Wishful Thinking

There are many forms of overconfidence bias in psychology. People believe that their skills at many tasks are better than they actually are. In general, only real experts in a particular domain are well-calibrated about how good they are.

Optimism has real benefits. In particular, people’s motivation to pursue a goal depends on two factors. One is their belief about the importance of the goal. The other is their belief about whether they will succeed at achieving the goal.

There are some benefits to working on a goal that may actually be out of reach.

First, even if you fail at the particular goal you were striving for, it may have significant benefits for the future. Most goals are not binary. That is, you don’t either completely succeed or completely fail. You may not reach the heights you hoped for, but you may still accomplish a lot.

Second, you will learn a lot in the process of pursuing a goal. That learning may improve your skills and make you better able to achieve a future goal than you would have been if you had given up.

Third, striving toward a goal may get your work (and your work ethic) noticed by other people. Your effort and hard work may open up future valuable opportunities.

Overconfidence is good when it leads you to believe that something that might be nearly impossible is actually something that you could achieve. However, overconfidence can be dangerous when it leads you to believe that you have nearly succeeded at something that actually requires a lot more effort.

In situations in which your confidence in an uncertain outcome leads you to coast, it may be more helpful to try the opposite delusion: “defensive pessimism.” In this case, you inflate your sense of how far you have to go to achieve your goal. You use the power of anxiety to keep you working hard at an outcome that is nearly assured.

Summing-up: For both overconfidence and defensive pessimism, you are taking a biased view of reality. As it turns out, though, a realistic view of the future is overrated. Your chances of success in the future depend much more on your continued effort than they do on a realistic assessment of your odds of success. Anything that keeps you motivated is a benefit. Even a bit of delusion.

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