By Bryan Caplan
We often accuse each other of wishful thinking. Only rarely, though, do we accuse each other of the opposite cognitive vice: morbid thinking.
The disparity could be purely linguistic, but it probably isn’t. We have tons of synonyms for “wishful thinking” or “wishful thinkers”: Pollyanna, Panglossian, pie-in-the-sky, head-in-the-sand, denialist, pipe dream, self-deception, daydreamer, and castle-in-the-cloud for starters. The only synonyms for “morbid thinking” or “morbid thinkers” that come to mind are chicken little and doom-sayer. (I wanted to add “Cassandra,” but Cassandras are realistically morbid!)
You might think that the disparity reflects the greater prevalence of wishful thinking relative to morbid thinking, but that’s hard to buy either. The media is notoriously negative; as a rule, good news just isn’t news. Academics, policy analysts, story-tellers, and religious leaders also tend to focus on the negative. Academics and policy analysts write about social problems; story-telling can’t get off the ground unless bad stuff happens; religious leaders tirelessly inveigh against sin (even if the nature of the sin keeps changing). We even see the disparity in daily conversation. When asked, “How did your day go?,” people usually share the worst thing that went wrong, not the best thing that went right.
The main counter-examples: politicians and marketing. But neither politicians nor marketers are likely to announce, “Everything is going swimmingly!” Instead, their “optimism” largely consists in, “Do as I recommend, and everything will go swimmingly! Otherwise, things could will go from bad to worse.”
Also odd: Morbid thinking doesn’t seem any less common in objectively pleasant countries and eras. Morbid thinking in London in 1500 or Port-au-Prince in 2013 is easy to understand. But shouldn’t morbid thinking be far less common in London in 1990 or Miami in 2013?
So what’s going on? My preferred explanation is simple: People neglect the danger of morbid thinking because most people are morbid thinkers! While wishful thinking does exist, vocal wishful thinkers quickly provoke pushback: “Open your eyes, daydreamer!” Vocal morbid thinkers, in contrast, typically evoke morbid support: “It’s even worse than you say.”
You could respond, “Bryan only says this because he’s a wishful thinker himself.” But what’s so wishful about decrying the ubiquity of morbid thinking?