How optimists like Bill Gates may be counterproductive to development

Optimist in Chief, Bill Gates.
Optimist in Chief, Bill Gates.
Eric Haver

There might not be a more optimistic person about the future of the world than Bill Gates.

“By 2035, there will be almost no poor countries left in the world,” declared Gates in his annual letter, released in January.

He has good reason to feel so good. Massive gains against extreme poverty, the reduction in deaths by diseases and growing nations all point to a better and more prosperous world in the coming future. Challenges remain, but most things seem to be going in the right direction.

Despite all that good news, there may be reason to be skeptical of optimistic thinking.

“Actually, there’s a lot of research now to suggest that many of these techniques are counterproductive, that saying positive affirmations to yourself in the mirror can make you feel worse and that visualizing the future can make you less likely to achieve it,” said journalist Oliver Burkeman to NPR in November.

It goes further, there are instances that show holding onto positive thoughts can keep people from achieving their goals. The Millennium Development Goals set a host of targets to be reached by 2015, the World Bank wants says most extreme poverty will be gone by 2035 and it also hopes to achieve universal access to electricity by 2030. Countries create their own ‘Vision’ documents that outline where they want to be by a certain point.

There are a lot of goals and optimism floating in the international development ether and they might not be helping as much as we think.

A book by Burkeman investigates the business of self-help, motivation and positive thinking. Bookstore shelves fill with advice on how to feel better, but they might actually be making things worse for people. Adam Alter recently described one study in the New Yorker:

[T]he social psychologists Gabriele Oettingen and Doris Mayer asked eighty-three German students to rate the extent to which they “experienced positive thoughts, images, or fantasies on the subject of transition into work life, graduating from university, looking for and finding a job.” Two years later, they approached the same students and asked about their post-college job experiences. Those who harbored positive fantasies put in fewer job applications, received fewer job offers, and ultimately earned lower salaries. The same was true in other contexts, too.

Such a small group of students participating does more to raise questions than determine conclusions, but other research is coming across similar conclusions. One of the dangers of overly positive thinking, says Burkeman, is the elimination of words like ‘failure’ and ‘impossible.’ The popular book, The Secret, advocated the power of visualization and positive thinking to bring about good things in life.

Such thought can set aside the struggle to achieve goals, which could be behind why the German students who had more positive thoughts failed to do what they wanted. More practically, saying something good will happen is not enough. Struggle and challenge are an essential part of the process. These lessons have a direct impact on aid and development.

“Typically aid aims in some way to diminish the struggle, or ideally to bypass it altogether. But if the struggle is necessary, at least some of the time, then we should think twice about whether and when it makes sense to try to minimize it,” blogged Owen Barder last week.

The Center for Global Development Senior Fellow went on to argue that legitimate systems and institutions need to emerge over time and struggle is a part of that process. He joins other scholars like Matt Andrews and Lant Pritchett in citing the Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation approach to development. That is wonk-speak for a theory where problems are dealt with incrementally.

The tough part is that the end result is pretty much already known. Governments have some differences from country to country, but the world’s leading nations have many similarities. Knowing that can lead some to want to speed up the process and bypass the struggle that may very well be necessary for success. These lessons are important as the discussions (and debate) heat up regarding what new targets/goals were emerge after 2015.

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.