The little engine that could attitude is great for writing novels, but it sucks for quitting smoking.
Indeed, optimism is beneficial in many situations. Many behaviors, such as writing a novel or starting a new business, have a low probability of success (and thus require positive illusions). Yet a recent paper by Loran Nordgren and colleagues (2009) shows that optimism can sometimes lead to failure.
The problem is self-restraint bias. Most people overestimate their self-control and ability to resist temptation. Hence optimistic smokers, attempting to quit, can waltz into situations where they are more likely to smoke, believing that they can rely on their will-power. And so are more likely to smoke. Oops!
When I quit smoking twenty-some years ago it was the hardest thing I’d ever done. I suppose the reason I never started again is that I remember it well and firmly believe I would have no ability to resist if I lit up one cigarette.
Optimism may make the little engine more likely to succeed at a given task, but it also makes the engine more likely to choose a task that is insuperable.
Oh don’t I know it! I do that with every novel. But somehow it’s gotten written and published every time. So far. Keep your fingers crossed for me this time!
(Full story on optimism here.)
h/t The Situationist