Destructive Daydreams: Why Wishful Thinking is Dangerous

Make a wish
How fantasies can get in the way of achieving your goals.

They say that if you can believe it and dream it, then you can make it come true.

It’s clearly not that easy. Indeed psychological research shows that wishful thinking can damage our drive to reach goals:

“The problem with positive fantasies is that they allow us to anticipate success in the here and now. However they don’t alert us to the problems we are likely to face along the way and can leave us with less motivation—after all it feels like we’ve already reached our goal.” (From: Success! Why Expectations Beat Fantasies)

Now a new study has found that:

“…fantasies about an idealized future may indeed lead to poor decisions. Such fantasies create a preference for information about pros rather than cons, particularly when people are not yet serious about pursuing the realization of the future.” (Kappes & Oettingen, 2012)

This creates a problem:

“Turning away from contradictory information allows idealized fantasies to be enjoyed untarnished, but may lead to shunning potentially helpful resources for decision making. Simply dreaming it, then, is not the key to making dreams become true.” (Kappes & Oettingen, 2012)

Worse, daydreaming can actually sap your energy:

“The present four studies indicate that positive fantasies about an idealized future diminish energy, which should hamper achievement on such tasks.” (Kappes & Oettingen, 2012)

That’s why if you’re serious about reaching a goal, indulging your fantasies too much is dangerous. There’s nothing wrong with a little positive thinking within certain boundaries:

“Fantasies that are less positive–that question whether an ideal future can be achieved, and that depict obstacles, problems, and setbacks–should be more beneficial for mustering the energy needed to attain actual success.”

This is just as true of individuals as it is of society in general:

“If you dream it and believe it, it becomes reality. [That philosophy] contributes to the economic bubble that we just saw explode in enormous ways” (Cohen, 2009)

As Barbara Ehrenreich says in her book Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America:

“We need to brace ourselves for a struggle against terrifying obstacles, both of our own making and imposed by the natural world. And the first step is to recover from the mass delusion that is positive thinking.”

Image credit: Robert Couse-Baker

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About the author


Dr Jeremy Dean is a psychologist and the author of PsyBlog. His latest book is "Making Habits, Breaking Habits: How to Make Changes That Stick". You can follow PsyBlog by email, by RSS feed, on Twitter and Google+.

Published: 14 June 2012

Text: © All rights reserved.

Images: Creative Commons License