Sunday, July 08, 2012

Weekend Post - Wishful thinking

You can’t make things happen just by wishing for them. No, you really can’t.

Despite what New Age mystical thinkers like the authors of The Secret will tell you, positive thinking is utterly useless. If you make the mistake of buying a copy of The Secret, you’ll learn that their nonsensical “Law of Attraction” suggests that positive thinking will magically lead to positive results. In the same way, thinking sad thoughts will lead to sad things happening, anger will beget anger and homicidal thoughts will transform you into a combi driver.

For a moment let’s ignore the fact that this is nonsense. Does this really mean that Jews got themselves Holocausted because they weren’t thinking positively enough? Did slaves get kidnapped and murdered because they weren’t looking on the bright side of life? Do murder victims deserve it? That’s what The Secret implies.

It IS nonsense of course, there’s absolutely no evidence whatsoever that wishful thinking works. In fact there’s evidence that it doesn’t. It’s not exactly the same thing, but there HAS actually been some experimentation into one form of magical thinking: prayer.

Does praying for sick people actually help them? Millions of people are told by their religious leaders every week to pray for the sick and unfortunate so it must work, mustn’t it?

No. It doesn’t. While there have been experiments showing some benefit, so far all of them have been discredited. One of them was even undertaken by a mixture of researchers who didn’t actually exist, others whose names had been hijacked and another who was a convicted criminal.

One of the very few properly controlled, truly scientific experiments was undertaken by a Harvard professor in 2006. A sample of 1,800 heart patients was divided into three groups. Group 1 were prayed for by unnamed strangers but didn’t know this was happening. Group 2 were not prayed for and also didn’t know this. The members of Group 3 were prayed for but they were told this was happening. The real test would be whether there was a difference in outcome between Groups 1 and 2. Did the prayers offer any benefit to people who didn’t know it was happening? The results (pdf file) were disappointing for the believers. Precisely no difference. The prayer had no observable effect on people who didn’t know they were the “recipients” of it.

However the really interesting thing though was what happened to the third group, the patients who knew strangers were praying for them. Members of this group had a noticeably greater level of complications. It seems that knowing that people are praying for them actually seems to have made them more unwell. Whoops.

The non-religious equivalent of prayer, often used in business, therapy and sports, is visualization. People are taught to picture mentally their success, their happiness and prosperity and are taught that this will help these things come true.

The science is simple. Visualization works but only if you do it the right way. Despite what the mystics will say, imagining success doesn’t work. What DOES work is imagining HOW you might succeed. Successful athletes don’t visualize winning the race, they visualize how they will win it. They picture leaving the starting line, how they accelerate, how they control their breathing, how they maintain their speed and how they cope with the pain. Students who visualize HOW they’ll study for that exam do better than the ones who just imagine getting an A grade.

I’m not really a big believer in self-help books but if you are interested in making changes to your life and you want to use techniques that actually work, go and buy a book called 59 Seconds by Richard Wiseman. Wiseman is a psychologist who has done genuine research into the vast array of self-help myths and talks about the things that actually work and dismisses the pseudoscience that doesn’t. He discusses exactly how techniques like visualization can actually help but also covers how to do better in interviews, reduce stress and even how to do better on a first date and it’s all based on scientific research. And the reason the book is called 59 Seconds? It’s because every suggestion he gives can be understood in less than a minute.

Wiseman also recently wrote an article in the UK’s Guardian newspaper in which he discussed the fallacy of positive thinking. In particular he mentioned the studies showing that students who visualized success in their examinations actually ended up studying less and performing more poorly in the exams. Another study showed that graduates who fantasized about getting fantastic jobs actually received fewer job offers and got lower average salaries.

The irony is that positive thinking and visualization are perhaps the worst things you can do to achieve success. Maybe instead you should try the scientific approach. Get off your backside and take some action instead of just fantasizing. The science will support you.

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