Positive thinking is bad for investing

6th September 2012

Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World by Barbara Ehrenreich

As most long-time readers would guess, I don't have much truck with the concepts of positivity. The appropriate and mindful attitude of most investors should be a constant expectation of something going wrong, because our mindless reptilian brains will automatically gravitate to the sunny upsides of over-optimism given the slightest reason.

Generally the advocates of positive thinking are in the ascendency – they tell people something they want to hear, namely that you can have what you want merely by wishing for it. This is the magical law of attraction and not only can it impoverish investors directly it also does so indirectly, through its effects on managers and employees. Exercised as mind-control it's repellent, unnatural and destructive. Get real, folks.

Prognosis: Poor

Reading Barbara Ehrenreich's book is a mind-numbing experience. Not because it's bad; quite the opposite, it's extraordinarily good. It's just profoundly depressing that so many people are caught in the embrace of an idea with about the same scientific justification as astrology. Worse, many of these people are the leaders of our corporations.

Frankly it's hard to find anything positive to say about positivity. There are, perhaps, some health benefits in terms of less stress and worry, but it's virtually impossible to pull out the genuine positives from the mass of confusing and subjective research in the area of positive psychology. As Smile or Die outlines, many nuanced studies are spun into celebrations of positivity in the hands of mainstream press: happiness sells, it seems.

Mind Control

Worse still, in the corporate world the lore of positivity has been adopted primarily as a means of mind-control – how many people have been forced into some infantile and fatuous role-playing and team-building sessions in lieu of job security and proper benefits? The demand that people stop whinging about their misfortunes and exhibit the correct attitude is as much about organizations maintaining control of their increasingly right-sized and temporary staff as it is about any genuine improvements in performance.

Despite decreasing job security and falling average incomes (as emphasised in the Federal Reserve's recent consumer finance study), and just about the lowest level of government spending on healthcare and social security in the developed world, social unrest is relatively rare in America – which is perhaps unsurprising when people are furiously indoctrinated with a spiel of positivity that tells them that their problems are of their own making and the solutions are in their own head, if they only want them hard enough. As Ehrenreich states:

"The strong belief in opportunity and upward mobility is the explanation that is often given for Americans' high tolerance for inequality: the majority of Americans surveyed believe that they will be above mean income in the future (even though that is a mathematical impossibility)"

Born Poor, Die Poor

Unfortunately America has one of the worst records for social mobility: if you're born poor you'll likely stay poor, if you're born into wealth you'll probably keep it. There are copious amounts of research on this subject but, for example, American Exceptionalism In a New Light, gives a flavour (and remember that the UK, famously, has one of the most ossified class systems in the world):

"Mobility is lower in the U.S. than in the U.K., where it is lower again compared to the Nordic countries. Persistence is greatest in the tails of the distributions and tends to be particularly high in the upper tails: though in the U.S. this is reversed with a particularly high likelihood that sons of the poorest fathers will remain in the lowest earnings quintile… The U.S. also differs from the Nordic countries in its very low likelihood that sons of the highest earners will show downward 'longdistance' mobility into the lowest earnings quintile."

And no amount of positive thinking is likely to do much about this.  Yet the whole, monstrous philosophy, is based a bizarre, pseudo-scientific idea known as the law of attraction which, to lay it bare, says that if you really, really wish for something you can have it.  Want a new house? Then that low starter interest rate mortgage is just the ticket – after all, you'll definitely be making more money by the time interest rates go up. Just believe in yourself.

Continue reading…


More on Mindful Money:

Unrealistic Optimism and the Impoverished Investor

Is Goldman Sachs to blame for everything?

Is investing a level playing field?

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