How Negative Thinking Can Boost Problem-Solving

How Negative Thinking Can Boost Problem-Solving

The New York Times recently put up a very short puzzle to help you assess how good you are at solving puzzles. Here’s the puzzle: type in three numbers, and see if those three numbers obey a certain rule. Some sequences of numbers will obey the rule, and some won’t. What’s the rule?

The interesting thing is that if you try it and type in the numbers, you’ll almost always get a response of, “Yes, those numbers follow the rule.” But when you try to guess the rule, you’ll probably be wrong.

Why? Because we almost always start with “Here’s my idea. Let’s see if I’m right.” But when we come at questions that way, we fall into what’s called “the confirmation bias” and tend to ignore the ways we might be wrong.

As the Times notes:

Not only are people more likely to believe information that fits their pre-existing beliefs, but they’re also more likely to go looking for such information…We’re much more likely to think about positive situations than negative ones, about why something might go right than wrong and about questions to which the answer is yes, not no…

[But that’s why] Vice President Dick Cheney predicted in 2003, “We will, in fact, be greeted as liberators…” and newspapers didn’t spend enough time challenging the assumption that classified advertisements would remain plentiful for decades.

It’s much more fun and easy to imagine the good and positive things that can happen. There’s a whole industry advancing “positive thinking” and “visualizing success.” Except if we focus exclusively on why we are so right, so good, and so smart, then when things do go wrong, we won’t know how respond.

So if positive thinking leads us down the wrong path, then what is the right path?

Journalist Oliver Burkeman suggests one in his book The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking“negative visualization.” Imagine everything that could possibly go wrong. Place yourself in the worst possible situation you can imagine. Stare it in the face.

Doesn’t sound so enjoyable does it? It’s definitely a lot less fun than imagining ourselves rolling in riches and an easy path to success. But it’s much more helpful, for two main reasons.

First, things can and do go wrong in life, and if we are prepared for the worst, then we can respond more effectively when they occur. But more importantly, just as life is rarely as wonderful as we might expect, it’s also rarely as terrible as we might fear:

[W]hen [things] do go wrong, they’ll almost certainly go less wrong than you were fearing. Losing your job won’t condemn you to starvation and death; losing a boyfriend or girlfriend won’t condemn you to a life of unrelenting misery….Confronting the worst-case scenario saps it of much of its anxiety-inducing power… (Burkeman, 34)

So look for what might go wrong. Consider why your idea might not make sense. Talk to people who disagree with you and try to poke holes in your argument.  Intentionally search out all the problems, catastrophes, and all the ways you will hear “no.”

It probably won’t be fun. It certainly won’t be easy. But that “no” might be the most important word you hear — because it can lead you to a more lasting, a more successful, and a more realistic “yes.”

(This post originally appeared on The Wisdom Daily)


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