Bryan Caplan  

Morbid Thinking

Prices Sing... Washington Monument Strategy o...
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?

COMMENTS (13 to date)
eccentric-opinion writes:

I suspect it has something to do with an (innate or acquired) feeling of loss aversion. It's worse to overestimatehow good something is than to underestimate it.

Keith writes:

More synonyms for "morbid thinking" or "morbid thinker": alarmism, cynicism, glass-half-empty thinking, naysayer, doom and gloom, Eeyore, negative Nelly (OK, maybe that last one isn't too common).

Rob writes:

Actually, optimism bias is a real thing.

Daniel Kahneman once pointed out that a lot of business starters wouldn't invest the way they do if they didn't overestimate the returns systematically.

So wishful thinking is an empirical reality. So why are the news etc. focused on the bad? Maybe because bad is stronger than good, especially in our perception.

Which is unsurprising, since we live in a universe of relentless entropy, where something as simple as one sharp object going a few inches in the wrong direction at the wrong time can kill you. Maybe this is also the reason why sudden shifts toward destruction can make the news, whereas growth of good developments is often slow and incremental. Like growing vs. suddenly dieing.

Himanshu Sanguri writes:

The common man builds his perception mostly from the news papers, media- reportings, mutual discussions, religious preachings, leaders teachings and other likes. It is a human nature that we feel more bad when we loose then we feel good when we gain the same amount. This human tendacy has always been exploited by all the trend setters by narrationg stories on only the grey realities and making people feel bad and worse and anguish. I recommend people to read more and more, analyze the facts and ignore the story tellers and ahve patience. I recommend a book "How to live freely in an unfree world".

Richard Fazzone writes:

Americans are not "morbid thinkers;" our elites mustsuggest that we are to hype-up their own flagging importance (and that includes some professors). Put differently, If it's on CNN, it's not news!

August writes:

I feel the reality is opposite, and I am suffering underneath the tyranny of the happiness cult. The only way you could be right is if all these frenetically happy people are secretly much more morbid thinkers than I am. Or maybe the medication they are taking causes mania. I like being authentically happy, like when good stuff happens, or I achieve a goal. And, while I don't particularly enjoy bad feelings, I do see their value. If I am experiencing some sort of unease, I will try to change things in some way, which is much preferable to medicating and/or lying on the couch and talking about it for 10 years.

Wallace Forman writes:

I question your premise Bryan. You left "pessimist" and "cynic" off your list of negative thinkers. People are frequently teased for being these things, whereas people praise themselves for being "optimists" - which you leave off your list. I expect these things are psychological signals of an individual's success, and they are stigmatized or applauded accordingly.

"Pollyanna, Panglossian, castle-in-the-cloud"

These words may exist, but how often are they actually used? "Pie-in-the-sky, daydreamer, head-in-the-sand, denialist, pipe dream, self-deception" - These words are used, but perhaps not as often as "pessimist, cynic, optimist."

Here are some other words: paranoid, scaremonger, chicken little, wet blanket, downer, sourpuss, worrywart, party pooper

Your conclusion may nonetheless be correct. But I think more specificity is useful. People are generally biased toward pessimism *where*? In their private thoughts? In their public policy proposals? In their GDP growth calculations? I think moral affiliation bias (or other biases) provides a better more individualized heuristic than a global "people are too pessimistic" framework.

John Meredith writes:

Excellent. The most frequently used word for a morbid thinker, though, is 'Jeremiah'.

G writes:

I think we focus on the morbid all around us because we live in a fallen world and yet we have conceptions of perfection. Religious leaders inveigh against sin because we have an intuition that there is a moral code which demands perfection and yet none of us attains it. Original sin and the fact of a world in which gratuitous evil exists run contrary to the way we know things should be. (And perhaps, in some spiritual sense, once were?)

Ted Levy writes:

Wanted to comment about this...too depressed...

MingoV writes:

I encounter wishful thinking all the time. I must live on a different planet in which:

Sick people believe they will get well by taking an herbal supplement. Fat people believe they will get thin by adhering to the latest fad diet. Drivers believe they can beat the red light by accelerating. Families believe that a vacation at Disney World will patch-up longstanding problems. High school seniors believe that a college degree will guarantee an easy and high-paying job. Young men go to nightclubs and believe they will 'score' with beautiful women. Students believe they can learn a complex subject by cramming just before the final exam. Salesmen believe they will beat their quota because the next client will place a big order. People believe national problems will be solved because Obama got elected. People believe the federal debt won't affect them because it will go away when the government prints more money.

Some wishful thinking expresses realistic optimism.
Some wishful thinking is actually magical thinking.

John Fembup writes:

"The only synonyms for "morbid thinking" or "morbid thinkers" that come to mind are chicken little and doom-sayer."

Here's another likely synonym, from insurance: "underwriting"

Once after speaking at a conference someone from the audience asked me "aren't you underwriters the people who always say 'no'?"

Of course, I answered "no."

JohnB writes:

If things are going well, my current strategy and tactics are right and I don't need to re-think and change what I do.

If things are not going well, I do need to re-think and may need to change what I do.

So of course my interest in news is assymmetric: if it's good, then I don't need more than that one bit of information ("things are good"). If it's bad, I want a lot more bits so I can analyze the problem and change what I do ("it's bad right here in this exact way").

I therefore don't think you need to bring in psychological terms like "morbid" to explain why we have different levels of interest in good and bad news.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top