Be skeptical, but assume the best

By Matt Hutchison, Columnist

Our expectations often impact how situations will develop. Yes, our thinking often creates self-fulfilling prophecies. Of course, these are not really prophecies but outcomes influenced by our expectations.

No, I’m not making any type of paranormal claim. In fact, I’m making a pretty basic psychological claim. Everyone has heard of the placebo effect: simply thinking that you’re taking a medication can decrease your symptoms. But this mindset applies to many areas of life and is the basis for positive thinking.

A recent article discussed some of the misconceptions about what it means to be a teenager — no, moodiness and rebellion are not an inherent part of the maturation process. But parental expectations that their teen will be moody and rebellious, or that their child is just being a typical teen, enforces stereotypes that lead to acting out; studied middle-schoolers were more likely to act out as they got older if their parents expressed attitudes that this was normal teen behavior. Another study showed that when parents expressed belief that their teens smoke, the likelihood that their teen would start smoking increased.

To add to parental pre-conceptions, the media only adds to this stereotype; you might be surprised to learn that “the teenager” is a modern concept, perhaps shaped more by marketing and new technology such as the car, than by biology.

This stereotype can help illuminate the concept of confirmation bias. Most people I know say they know what confirmation bias is, but don’t connect it to their own behavior. We’re all guilty of this, but some of us are certainly better at detecting it than others.

So, what does this have to do with assuming the best? You have to assume the best if you want the best outcome. Think you’re going to fail? You likely will. Think you won’t get the result you want? You probably won’t. Think people are working against you? They will probably sense your distrust and avoid you.

However, I am not advocating naivety or positive delusions. A desire to only be positive is not only inhuman, but creates a sucker. If you were to ignore warning signs because you want to assume the best, these thoughts will likely to lead to even worse results than assuming something bad might happen. Healthy skepticism keeps us balanced and evolving. It also keeps us honest.

Descartes said, “I think therefore I am.”

I tend to think, “I doubt therefore I think. I am the thoughts that have helped me overcome my doubts. New doubts then cause me to think, continuing the process ad infinitum.” This is where the concept of proof comes in. Without proof, I am very doubtful; there is no reason to think you will fail unless you have the proof, not the thought, of failure. There is no reason for a parent to doubt their teen unless they have proof, not thoughts, of future volatility.

Instead of doubting ourselves or others based on expectations, perhaps we need to expect the best, doubt when there is insufficient proof and only expect the worst once the proof exists. Our happiness, and our society, will be better for it.   

Matt is a junior in Media.

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