The Power and Danger of Wishful Thinking

November 8, 2012
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There once was a goldsmith in Cyprus called Pygmalion who liked to sculpt. According to Ovid, the Roman poet, he sculpted a beautiful girl out of ivory and fervently wished that she would become his wife. Venus granted his fervent wish and when he kissed the staute’s lips she came to life. And thus was born the mythology that if you wish something really, really, really fervently , it will become reality.

There once was a goldsmith in Cyprus called Pygmalion who liked to sculpt. According to Ovid, the Roman poet, he sculpted a beautiful girl out of ivory and fervently wished that she would become his wife. Venus granted his fervent wish and when he kissed the staute’s lips she came to life. And thus was born the mythology that if you wish something really, really, really fervently , it will become reality.

I was reminded of this myth when a day before the election the stock market soared. Curious about the political implication I turn to CNBC, and there I watch 3 money managers state that Romney is about to win big and “this is a Romney rally”. Were they hallucinating? Didn’t they read Nate Silver’s columns in the NYT who daily analyzed the polls and assigned a <20% chance of a Romney victory? Didn’t they hear about the myriad polls showing an Obama advantage in the swing states?

These financial geniuses were not alone. Wall Street traders created “Romney Portfolios” containing coal, oil, gas, and defense stocks, which soared on the days leading up to the election.

What about the Romney campaign? Did they really believe their own spin? Here is David Brooks, the conservative columnist of the NYT, in one of his delightful conversations with his colleague Gail Collins:

David:“This might be a good time for Republicans to redouble their commitment to the reality-based community. Did you see Byron York’s reporting from inside the Romney campaign? They apparently had this giant computer model called Orca — named after a whale because it was bigger than anything the Democrats could imagine. It processed huge amounts of data and late in the day was still projecting a Romney victory until its head exploded. Garbage in. Garbage out”.

Amazing, they so believed in their own imaginary models that, according to CNN, it took Romney so long to concede because he prepared only an acceptance speech… The power of positive thinking taken to extreme.

Curious to see how people react when their illusory bubble collides with reality I tuned in to Fox News. There was Karl Rove, an avalanche of disastrous returns flashing on the split screen, predicting that there are still 50,000 voters in Delaware County in Ohio who are dyed- in-wool Republicans and are going to deliver the state to Romney. And the infamous “strategist” Dick Morris  was still insisting that a Republican landslide is just around the corner. You can only shake your head at such a delusional spectacle.

Wishful thinking is not funny, not when fateful decisions are made. The architects of the Iraq war tried to bend reality to their aims, and thousands of young people lost their lives. The anti-science theology of the right wing is denying the reality of climate change  is going to cost trillions in natural disasters; the latest clash with the realities of nature in New Jersey and New York is estimated at north of $60 billion), and  over a thousand dead. And a clash with math is now costing the people who thought reality is subject to manipulation and deceit.

How does the illusory wishful thinking affect you directly? A quick check of the financial “experts” who invested according to their theory of a Romney victory revealed that they work for institutions that in all likelihood manage part of your 401K, pension plan or mutual fund. Such is the destructive reach of wishful thinking: from the lives of kids sent to war to your pocketbook.

 

 

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