Fooling Ourselves

Fooling Ourselves. Psychology Fanatic article header image

Citing positive mantras generates energy to combat critical and destructive thoughts. But when our mantras deviate too far from reality, we impede learning. We need more positive reinforcement, but others, perhaps, need more reality. Positive thinking motivates. Science supports this. However, it doesn’t motivate universally. Some, unfortunately, rely on positive thinking to kindly serve success without engaging in the necessary work. In these cases, positive thinking fails to motivate, and the lazy dreamer drifts off into hopeful world of fooling themselves into inactivity.

Thoughts Motivate Behavior

​Thoughts—whether positive or negative—influence behavior. How and what we think has impacts on how life feels and how we act. We want to feel good but not at the expense of correct action. We must bounce back and forth from soothing our ego to uncomfortable prodding ourselves for better action.

Thoughts play a prominent role in the action loop, encouraging action to fulfill the thought (see possible selves). If we believe we are bungled and botched, we likely flounder, messing up assignments, and fulfilling the tainted picture we hold of ourselves. The same is true for positive thinking; when we trust in our abilities, we likely will act to succeed. The practice of citing positive mantras challenges negative beliefs, re-programming self-defeating thoughts encouraging more constructive action.

“Scholars like Albert Bandura and Martin E. P. Seligman have championed the power of positive thinking for motivating action. “In their research studies, people who judged their chances of success more favorably based on past experience actually did more to pursue them and achieved their goals more readily” (Oettingen, 2014).

Fooling Ourselves with Positive Thinking

Positive mantras, however, are not magic. When too dependent on mantras, we over-look other important ingredients for success. Lasting and effective change requires more than a few simple phrases. We must follow thoughts with proper actions. Acting with confidence when action is misdirected leads to massive failures. Along with positive thoughts, we must remain humble enough to see fault and apply corrective adjustments. With sufficient knowledge, practiced skills and the self-discipline, we can achieve many great things.

Research found something interesting about positive thinking. When the positive thinking was disconnected from reality, it didn’t motivate. And in many cases, it did the opposite. Gabriele Oettingen explains “positive fantasies, wishes, and dreams detached from an assessment of past experience didn’t translate into motivation to act toward a more energized, engaged life. It translated into the opposite” (2014, Kindle location 241).

Without proper knowledge, positive color coating of errors may reinforce confidence where skills and knowledge are lacking. I call this misdirected confidence. We need doubt in areas we need to develop. Not doubt in ourselves but doubt in our skills in that particular area.

“When too dependent on mantras, we may over-look other important ingredients for success. Lasting and effective change requires more than a few simple phrases.”

~T. Franklin Murphy

Without the necessary self-discipline and skills, we can fool ourselves to feel good, but then sit idle, waiting for the universe to deliver the rewards. We must make difficult choices, defying natural inclinations, and humbly acknowledge personal limitations. All blessings are predicated on natural laws of life. Achievements require specific actions.

Knowledge, Self-Discipline, and Patience

I can repeatedly tell myself how intelligent I am but if I neglect reading and learning, my intelligence remains stagnant. I may think I am brilliant; but remain stupid. Positive self-talk can motivate but also can inhibit.

​Several decades ago, after reading “Think and Grow Rich,” I discovered prematurely thinking I was rich encouraged unnecessary spending. Instead of implementing the necessary habits of saving and investing, the positive thoughts landed me deeper in debt. For positive thought to succeed, it must motivated proper action—following the proper means is essential to arrive at the desired end. If proper action doesn’t follow, we are only fooling ourselves.

see hope theory for more on this topic

Realistic Optimism

I recently read an article that guaranteed success by practicing three things. The article listed the following:

  1. Specific goals
  2. Associating with the people we aspire to be like, and
  3. Visualizing the benefits (even test driving expensive cars).

​These three suggestions (not scientifically supported) may motivate but the steps blatantly skips the necessary hard work. Knowledge, self-discipline, and patience are out of vogue—unpopular vestiges of the past​. Yet, without them, we fail. By entertaining hope without applying appropriate action, we evoke conflict. Reality collides with expectations. The riches and happiness evade our misguided hopes until we properly act. We must stop fooling ourselves.

See Realistic Optimism for more on this topic

The conflict—believing but not acting—eventually discourages the dreamer. Beliefs eventually must contend with reality. Believing I’m rich doesn’t pay delinquent bills. The belief is no more than fooling ourselves with trickery of the mind. The conflict challenges our positive thoughts, requiring a re-examination of behaviors, or more engrossing deceit. We shouldn’t fool ourselves into believing we are successful while living in squalor. The bill collectors continue to knock at the door, the bank accounts remain barren, and our hopes reflect the sorrow of unfulfilled dreams. We continue to live the nightmare unless, of course, we begin the real work of change.

Positive Thoughts  and Positive Actions

We seek simple solutions to complex problems. We chase after fast and dramatic results while ignoring proven and difficult paths necessary for success. In a nut shell, we fool ourselves with simplicity, magnifying the easy while ignoring the difficult.

When we sort through the dozens of pieces necessary for success, carefully placing them correctly, we solve the complex puzzle of richness and satisfaction. Positive thinking is one piece; an effective instrument for our well-being tool box. But a single tool has limitations—easily misused; not because the tool is faulty but because it’s incomplete. Sometimes we need a hammer, other times a wrench. Often, we need both.

Success, while defined in many ways, is a state of being achieved through the proper actions to bring the hopes into the reality of our lives. This process requires skills—of thought and action. Positive thinking motivates. Positive thinking may strengthen self-discipline. But ultimately for the gifts to be bestowed, we must quit fooling ourselves with positive thoughts that ignore the challenging behaviors upon which those gifts are predicated. Our thoughts can encourage action or grossly fool ourselves into inaction. Don’t be a fool.

Join 50.2K other subscribers


Oettingen, Gabriele (2014). Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation.

Leave a Reply

Discover more from Psychology Fanatic

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue Reading