The negative side of positive thinking

Two Democratic fundraising emails were sent to supporters. In one version, the candidate was leading a closely contested race; in the other, he was trailing. Which email got more clicks and coaxed more donations?

Perhaps counterintuitively, the losing candidate’s message sparked the most action.

The experiment was part of a study that explored how optimism can lead to inaction. Behavioral scientist Todd Rogers of the Harvard Kennedy School and colleagues conducted six related studies that explored “belief in a favorable future” across various contexts and cultures, and found that people tend to believe that others will come around to their point of view over time.

“It often seems that partisans believe they are so correct that others will eventually come to see the obviousness of their correctness,” Rogers said. “Ironically, our findings indicate that this belief in a favorable future may diminish the likelihood that people will take action to ensure [it] becomes reality.”

In one online study, the researchers asked 254 participants to report their views on nine wide-ranging topics: abortion, same-sex marriage, climate change, ideology, party affiliation, President Trump, soda, the National Basketball Association, and phone preferences. For all topics, the participants’ own beliefs were tied to their predictions of how others’ views would change.

Data from more than 800 people in China, Japan, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom indicated that even when people were given an incentive to make accurate predictions about how people’s beliefs would change, they tended to believe others’ opinions would eventually fall in line with their own.

“The most interesting aspect of this to me is how robust it is,” Rogers said. “This pattern of findings emerges for an unexpectedly diverse range of preferences, views, and beliefs — and it emerges across cultures. People biasedly believe that others will change in ways that align with their current preferences, views, and beliefs.”

According to the researchers, this bias could help explain a host of behaviors, from staying in a bad job or relationship to underestimating future opposition to a political view.

The studies were published in Psychological Science and were conducted by Rogers and Don A. Moore of the UC Berkeley Haas School of Business and Michael I. Norton of Harvard Business School (HBS). The research was supported by the Kennedy School’s Center for Public Leadership and HBS.


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