Future, Fantasy, and Positive Volition: When Futurists Choose to Be Optimistic, It Is Sometimes Mistaken for Mindless Fantasy. but a Psychologist Argues That Optimism Is Vital for Effective Futuring, Because It Allows Us to Face Reality with the Fortitude to Make Things Better

By Colborn, Matthew | The Futurist, January-February 2011 | Go to article overview

Future, Fantasy, and Positive Volition: When Futurists Choose to Be Optimistic, It Is Sometimes Mistaken for Mindless Fantasy. but a Psychologist Argues That Optimism Is Vital for Effective Futuring, Because It Allows Us to Face Reality with the Fortitude to Make Things Better


Colborn, Matthew, The Futurist


Are futurists wrong to promote optimism? Are they selling fantasies that will be never delivered? Is optimism a dangerous mind-set that prompts a retreat into delusion? The critics mount a powerful, but superficial case. I contend that optimism remains important and necessary. Several recent books have savagely critiqued optimism or "positive thinking," notably Barbara Ehrenreich's Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America (Metropolitan Books, 2009). Ehrenreich accuses the positive thinking industry of promoting a repressive culture and an unhealthy disengagement from reality that encourages people to cocoon themselves in rose-tinted bubbles. She even suggests that such beliefs, apparently widespread in the financial world, might have contributed to the stock market crash of 2008.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Some psychological data suggest that Ehrenreich has a point. Psychologists who recently tested whether fantasies help or hinder the achievement of personal goals have identified a "False Hope Syndrome," in which unrealistic expectations doom a project to failure. The "syndrome" occurs when a person or group unrealistically believes that a little bit of effort will achieve spectacular results. Psychologists Peter Herman and Janet Polivy suggest that many diets and fitness regimens fail for this reason. They call for a more pragmatic approach based upon realism and incremental change.

Oliver James, in his book Affluenza (Vermilion, 2007), advocates positive volition while criticizing positive thinking. James asserts that it is better to act in a positive way in a given situation rather than spend one's efforts thinking oneself into a more positive place. We need to recognize the importance of planning, persistence, and long-term approaches as opposed to quick fixes.

If an insistence on mindless "positive thinking" has significant negative repercussions, then futurists need to be very careful about the kind of optimism they promote. The past literature of futurism is replete with attractive visions of futures that either never materialized or were never very likely in the first place. There are many examples of this, including overly optimistic projections about space travel, claims that nuclear power would result in energy that was too cheap to meter, and more recent assurances that some future miracle technology will make fossil fuels obsolete overnight. In each case, the technology was overestimated, and social, technical, and political counter-factors were underestimated or ignored.

On the other hand, futuring has never demanded that we ignore unattractive possibilities. Scenario planning typically includes worst-case and disaster scenarios as well as best-case scenarios; see Edward Cornish's Futuring for some examples (WFS, 2004). Similarly, dystopian thinking in science fiction represents what David Brin has termed "possible failure modes" that we need to be conscious of in order to avoid them. Currently, our global problems are such that dystopian visions in some respects predominate, and some people find it difficult to envisage any positive futures at all.

Futurists, too, have long recognized the importance of avoiding excessive fantasizing when trying to achieve goals. The 1950s French futurist Gaston Berger cautioned that dreaming is the opposite of planning, warning that we may end up enjoying the imaginary fruits of labor instead of actually accomplishing them. …

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