- Can you think of a friend who haphazardly or even recklessly makes illogical decisions without first considering the consequences or potential outcomes?
- Does your line manager or business partner easily sweep issues and concerns under the carpet with careless dismissal of the impact this would have on workforce morale or workload?
- Is there a member in your family who is quite good at ignoring common apprehensiveness or unease, who may come across as a bad listener?
If there is someone in your personal or professional life showing these kinds of behaviours, it could be that you are having to deal with a delusional optimist.
During a week-long school trip to Shrewsbury in year 6 (ages 10-11), our year group were divided into smaller groups for a group activity. I really loved this group activity, and even now I tend to use it as a team-building exercise for already existing working groups (or families)! One at a time, we had to wait outside the room whilst the others discussed which animal he or she was most like, and to describe his or her qualities. When it came to my turn, I was described as a nightingale because I sang and because I was an optimist. It was the first time I’d ever heard the word optimist (to my recollection); and have felt close to it ever since!
What is ‘optimism’?
We have all heard of optimism. Optimism’s root, called ‘hope’, is a foundational virtue for its rise in the human heart and provides its nourishment. Loss of hope results in a loss of optimism, for optimism cannot survive without hope. Judeo-Christianity defines hope as the ‘greatest of all God’s gifts’, together with the other theological virtues of faith and charity. One of the earliest use of the term ‘optimism’ is in the work of Leibniz in the early 1700’s, but in modern history, the scholarly works into mental health of Fromm (1955), Freud (1966), Taylor & Brown (1988) and Seligman (today looked up to as the father of positive psychology) bring us to the popular definition of ‘optimism’ as we know it today, which is ‘a generalised expectation that good things will happen’ (Carver & Scheier, 2009) and is regarded as an attributional style (Seligman, 2006), a trait (Carver & Scheier, 2009) and an inherent human characteristic (Sharot, Riccardi, Raio & Phelps, 2007).
As with all things of nature or spirit, balance exists and must be attained. It’s one of my life’s missions, to acquire balance in myself, and to help others attain it too – not just physiological balance (what is called homeostasis), but in all things that ontologically touch a human’s personhood. What we need for optimal performance must be at the right amount. Otherwise, it’s not good for us. This is a truth as pertains to both natural and supernatural law.
A helpful analogy for balance is our daily intake of vitamins. Let’s take vitamin C. We only need 40mg of this vitamin a day for optimal performance. A chronic deficiency in this vitamin will eventually cause problems. Likewise, too much of this vitamin will eventually cause different problems (you can check my vitamin C factfile for more info about this). Imagine… we only need 40mg of vitamin C a day, and yet, people take 1000mg daily of this vitamin daily, believing that the more it’s consumed, the better the body will be for it. This is, quite simply, delusional, and potentially dangerous or painful (as it can exacerbate issues like hemochromatosis or oxalate-formed kidney stones, etc.). In fact, as a water-soluble vitamin, our bodies have a very, very clever way of eliminating any excess or unmetabolized vitamin C through our urine, so that we don’t have too much of it in our system at any one time.
The same concept must also be applied to the amount of optimism we require for peak performance as human beings. Ironically, people tend to think of the opposite of optimism as pessimism. However, I would disagree with this. I would argue that the opposite of pessimism is something called acedia (a hopelessness or spiritual depression. In the Christian faith, it is a desolation of sorts). The scope of this blogpost isn’t to deal with acedia or even explore it. However, I have done a lot of reading on this state and would be happy to write about it if it’s of interest to readers. The scope of this blogpost is to develop thought and gain insight on how to deal with a ‘delusional optimist’, but what is that? In 1988/89, ground-breaking work by psychologists Taylor and Brown claimed that although optimism is normal and natural, positive illusions, as differentiated between ‘inflated positive self-perception’, ‘exaggerated assessments of personal control’ and ‘unrealistic optimism’ present an inaccurate view of reality. With this realisation came the warning that illusions can be taken to excess, and when the ‘margin of optimal illusion’ is surpassed, we end up battling with the costs of delusional optimism.
Actions, behaviours and attitudes of delusional optimists – and how to deal with them
Please note that this list of actions, behaviours and attitudes are not strictly limited to delusional optimists. They could be signs and symptoms of other issues, conditions or even be a regular trait in certain personality types.
Delusional optimists are often very stubborn about the end to which they’re being optimistic about. This is just a result of their strong conviction that ‘things are going to be fine / work out the way they should’. This conviction can cause their ears and their hearts to disregard the genuine worries of others, which is why it’s important to remember that when dealing with someone operating in this mode, they are not purposely ignoring YOU. Also, it is understandable why one might become suspicious of their actions when they don’t openly communicate their intentions aloud. Don’t take their disinterest in your concerns personally. They are just highly convinced and are already committed in their hearts to a course of action that they fundamentally believe is best for everyone, and nothing but a crisis can wake them up from this delusional stupor. If the course of action leads to disaster, it may be easier to accept it as such, and to learn big lessons from it. However, if the course of action proves to be a success, then this delusional optimist deserves credit and praise for their dedication and commitment, as well as the courage it took to achieve the success (no matter how blind or ill-considered it was).
This behaviour makes sense if we ruminate on Taylor and Brown’s ground-breaking work as mentioned above. A delusional optimist may possess an inflated positive self-perception. This is when his/her subjective judgement signals self-possession of ‘better than average’, or maybe even ‘the best’, in quality or quantity: attributes, characteristics, skills, or abilities compared to others. They can tend to make exaggerated assessments of things they believe they have more control of or in, than they do in reality. This is due in part to the idea that what is objectively considered risky, may not be subjectively deemed so by the person. The phrase ‘throwing caution to the wind’ would ring bells here. A delusional optimist is a risk manager’s worst nightmare! In practice, the unrealistic optimism of such a person could cause an underestimation of resources and requirements to bring a project to success, or equally cause an overestimation of planned outcomes that would result in major losses (e.g. in money, relationships, time, reputation). However, being over-confident can have two distinct advantages. 1) Should a project work in favour of the delusional optimist, they’ll become a genius or somewhat of a hero figure among the pack, and 2) in the face of challenges, the delusional optimist has an uncanny ability to raise morale, motivation and performance, thereby increasing chances of success. Risk language doesn’t really work in convincing a delusional optimist to hit their pause button. If anything, it will only drive them further and more headstrong into their pursuit. In this situation, one must find a way to keep the motivation of the delusional optimist up whilst tactfully communicating the potential benefit or advantage of pulling back the reigns as attractive and positively aspirational. Killing their confidence wouldn’t be a good way to gain healthy results.
It might appear that the delusional optimist exhibits flagrantly irresponsible behaviour. The issue with this perspective is that, this would not be their perspective. When combining my points on stubbornness and over-confidence above, we are left with this: the unease of having to deal with decision-makers appearing to ignore responsibility. Where decisions have little to no impact on people, assets or liabilities, then objectively, responsibility lessens. If decisions have major impact on people, assets or liabilities, then responsibility understandably increases, and quite drastically. In a world where all things are equal, simple ‘what if’ questions may suffice for alerting someone to address their responsibility – however, this rarely works for the delusional optimist. The coaching style here would alter slightly to – in a way – work ‘backwards’. Helping them foresee any ‘fire-fighting’ activity that might come their way post-event, could be the best eye-opener for them.
Conclusion: Behaviour change through motivational interviewing
The best time to inspire behaviour change so that this optimist can continue to be an optimist, but a realistic one, is when they’re not focused on a project that they are already certain would be a crazy success! Working during a time of lull or when enthusiasm isn’t heightened would be helpful for bringing in some objectivity into their subjective reality. Motivational interviewing is a highly recognised technique for supporting clients see reality more clearly, and to make healthy life changes.