*I Think I Can’t

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

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9 thoughts on “*I Think I Can’t

  1. I have my fingers crossed for you, absolutely, though the evidence suggests you don’t need it šŸ™‚ This does remind me, though, I really must read your books… can’t believe I haven’t got round to it yet!

    1. Thank you Rachel! And I don’t judge my friends according to whether they have read (or liked) my books. šŸ™‚

  2. Very interesting! I guess we need to be realistic optimists.

  3. My husband is a huge optimist and I tell him he’s a danger to himself and others. He never prepares, never remembers things that go wrong and never makes realistic predictions of what might happen…. I follow him, a pragmatic pessimist, and pick up the pieces. I think you need positive thinking to give yourself the courage and stamina to do things, but to do them, optimism should be firmly put to one side and some more realistic yardsticks brought in… But then I’m a pessimist and I would say that! šŸ™‚

    1. Litlove, I’m an optimist in some ways, but have a habit of thinking of every possible contingency, worrying about it and planning for it. There must be a happy medium.

  4. I see how that dynamic works in my life with food. Sure, I can go to that party and not each much! Sure I can have only one cookie! I don’t seem to learn the lesson, though, that I usually do give in.

    1. That’s why I never used to have anything sweet in the house. I figured that the effort to go out and get something would deter me! But h and kids don’t go for that.

  5. It’s a funny oscillation, isn’t it? With writing, I feel my own internal pendulum swinging like a loose tonsil pretty much constantly. I just can’t decide if I’m an optimistic pessimist or a pessimistic optimist. Lilian dear, you don’t need our fingers but of course they’re crossed anyway.

    1. Thank you Di–for your confidence in me and crossing fingers anyway!

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