Is your glass half empty or half full?

The classic expression that determines whether you’re an optimist or a pessimist is so well-known that it has often been used to refer to different personality types. If you step out into the world feeling confident, you’re already won half the battle. You must have faith in yourself and your abilities in order to succeed.

It’s become extremely fashionable to extol the virtues of positive thinking. Positive thinking, today’s received wisdom declares, is a magic wand that will enable you to achieve your dreams, self-actualise and fulfil your reason for existence. However, I’d like to suggest that there is a limit to this type of magical thinking – in fact, I’m here to offer a contrarian view.

“Don’t worry, be happy”

“Look on the bright side”

“There’s a silver lining in every cloud”

– Conventional Wisdom

How often have you heard these time-worn clichés being trotted out? These platitudes, along with many others, are part and parcel of our conventional wisdom about dealing with setbacks and failures in our lives. I need to confess that I have also been guilty of offering such well-meaning advice.

However, what if positive thinking can be harmful?

You might be surprised to find out that there is an inverse correlation between confidence and competence. In fact, there is even a psychological term for it. According to Cornell psychologist David Dunning and his then-graduate student Justin Kruger, the Dunning-Kruger effect is a cognitive bias where individuals believe they are much more competent than they are. Confidence is not always a bad thing  - but too much of it can be. Overconfidence is one of the most pervasive and potentially catastrophic biases in human thought. It explains why some people are more likely to have traffic accidents, or why some people like compulsive gamblers or eaters do not see the need to change their unhealthy habits. Though they are aware of the risks involved, they underestimate how detrimental the impact of their actions can be. They think, “Bad things are going to happen to other people and not me.”

So, how is this relevant to learning? Most human beings tend to be overconfident and students are not excluded from that. This is not surprising since confidence certainly makes us feel good about ourselves. Pessimists who typically approach situations by envisioning what could go wrong actually end up performing better because of their pessimism. Their natural tendency to imagine the worst-case scenario compels them to push themselves harder.

It’s precisely this attitude that motivates them to be prepared for the worst and to get a lot done as a result. As a teacher, although I do not believe in discouraging students and tearing down their self-confidence, I also believe that pessimism can be a good motivator, helping students to be more aware of their abilities and work towards improving themselves. Being overconfident can make you complacent and lull you into thinking that you have nothing else to improve.

The reality is that there is always room for improvement, even for the most well-written work. Forget about too much positive thinking – it’s no different from wishful thinking.

For all that I’ve said, I’d like to be clear – I am by no means suggesting that we become perpetual grouches and overanxious individuals. All I am saying is let’s not forget that, historically speaking, the feel-good, positive thinking movement is a relatively new phenomenon. I believe previous generations of Singaporeans were realists who would not have indulged in ritualistic back-patting, and nobody would deny that they achieved wonders. Today the pendulum has swung so far in the opposite direction of nebulous positive self-affirmation that it might all seem a little excessive.

Push yourself. Question yourself. Doubt yourself. You might actually become a better person.

This article was written by Ms Ruth Chew, a teacher at Academia.