Monday, October 1, 2012

wishful thinking

Wishful thinking is interpreting facts, reports, events, perceptions, etc., according to what one would like to be the case rather than according to the actual evidence. Wishful thinking is often coupled with self-deception. A person who is afraid of surgery and believes that chemotherapy is a hoax perpetrated by Big Pharma and the AMA may want to believe that the alkaline diet or Gerson therapy is her best chance at cancer survival, despite the lack of scientific evidence for either of those so-called alternative treatments. Her desire to believe in alternatives to surgery and chemotherapy may lead her to ignore the evidence in favor of the treatment recommended by science-based medical doctors. She may be taken in by glorious stories of people who were diagnosed with this or that kind of cancer which went away after doing the alternative treatment. The stories may be true, but the causal link between the alternative treatment and the remission of cancer is made in the mind of the believer. Rather than admit that just because one thing happened after another it isn't necessarily the case that the first thing caused the second, she believes that anyone who doesn't agree with her about the causal connection must be a shill for Big Pharma and the AMA.

Wishful thinking should not be confused with positive thinking, which, in its most absurd form is a kind of magical thinking that involves trying to make things happen by willing them to happen. In its best form, positive thinking is hopeful and optimistic, but realistic.


Wishful thinking sometimes evolves into motivated reasoning, which not only interprets data according to preferences but actually takes disconfirming data and turns it into confirming data.
Motivated reasoning is a major obstacle for rational argument. If someone wants to believe that asylum seekers are breaking the law, or if someone wants to believe that virtually all of the world’s climate scientists have conspired to make up a huge global “climate change hoax”, then it is very difficult to change their minds even when the actual evidence is very, very clear.*
When confronted with someone whose belief system seems to be built mainly on wishful thinking perhaps the best one can do is provide alternative interpretation(s) of the data without insisting that the believed interpretation is wrong. Direct challenges to such a belief system may backfire. Actually, even the mere suggestion that valuing personal experience over scientific facts and probabilities might be harmful to your health is often met with self-serving dismissal.

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