When ‘I Believe’ Backfires

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Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

It’s the epitome of classic American optimism: The U.S. national team’s World Cup chant, I believe that we will win! Ahead of today’s knockout match against Belgium, ESPNFC.com has a short history of the cheer. The music swells, the “I believe” chant repeats — it’s hard not to watch the two-minute video without getting a little misty-eyed. Yes, I do believe!  

And maybe it’ll work for the U.S. today —  it certainly seems to have so far. But — and here Science of Us offers its sincerest apologies for being a complete and total buzzkill —  in everyday life, emerging evidence suggests the “I believe” attitude tends to backfire. As the theory popularized by New York University psychologist Gabriele Oettingen goes, fantasizing about an idealized future may inadvertently burn up most of your energy, which stops you from putting in the work necessary to attain those goals. 

Here’s a brief look at of the recent findings:

Overly optimistic grad students have a tougher time finding jobs. In a 2002 study, Oettingen and colleagues interviewed students in their last year of graduate school, asking them to rate how likely they thought they were to land a good job shortly after leaving school. Two years later, those who had admitted to frequent positive fantasies about life after grad school were less likely to succeed in their job search —  probably, Oettingen argues, because they didn’t try as hard. They sent out fewer résumés, so it’s no surprise that they received fewer job offers — and the daydreamers ultimately earned less than the students who’d had a more realistic take on their post-university lives.

Daydreaming will never help you get the girl (or guy). In that same paper, researchers asked a different set of students about the person they currently, secretly, had feelings for. Five months later, the students who had spent the most time fantasizing about their future lives with their crushes were the least likely to have actually started relationships with them. Many of them hadn’t even tried. The people with more moderate expectations, on the other hand, were more likely to approach the object of their affection and own up to their feelings. They were less likely to wait for their crush to come to them, in other words, and even that tiny baby step helped in establishing a relationship.

Watch out for positive newspaper articles and upbeat presidential addresses. Research published earlier this year in Psychological Science rated the positivity of newspaper stories in the business pages of USA Today; the more Pollyanna-ish stories they found, the more the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped in the month that followed. The same paper rated presidential inaugural addresses, from the New Deal era to the present, and found that the more uplifting the speech, the more likely it was for the employment rate to decline during that presidency. Sure, these are merely correlations, and we can’t prove causal relationships from them. But the researchers argue that believing in a booming economy might lead to a lowered collective effort to ensure that the economy keeps booming, similar to the previous effect seen at the individual level. And you don’t have to look back too far to see examples of how this might work.  

So the secret may be to ignore The Secret: Positive thinking has its place, but don’t mistake the warm fuzzies that accompany daydreaming about achieving your goals for, you know, actually achieving those goals.