The Tyranny of Positive Thinking


Earlier posts here and here discussed recent claims in national newspapers and mainstream media that positive thinking may be a cure for Long-Covid. Similar claims have been made previously for cancer and for MECFS but these claims are unsupported by scientific evidence.

Anecdotes by vocal advocates receive disproportionate publicity compared to the more reasoned research by seasoned investigators. The anecdotes supporting cure claims are at the bottom of the Evidence Pyramid. In-depth investigations of positive thinking among patients with serious illnesses suggest that the psychological effects of thinking positive can be far from positive. In some cases, it can actually be counter-productive.

When a person with a serious medical condition uses ‘positive thinking’ as a coping device, the technique can backfire and make things feel even worse. The patient may easily be convinced that they are not performing well and that they are to blame for their symptoms. People in the media who are advocating ‘positive thinking’ as a cure are acting irresponsibly and may be contributing to a worsening of symptoms.

Some researchers have even referred to the ‘tyranny of positive thinking’.

In their review of research on positive thinking, Lisa Aspinwall and Richard Tedeschi (2010) suggested:

the principal danger of popular versions of positive psychology, namely,
those with a seemingly relentless emphasis on mandating
optimism, individual happiness, and personal growth no
matter the circumstances, is that the general public may
come to believe that one can conquer cancer by thinking
positively and that if one is not getting a good response,
one is not thinking positively enough, not laughing enough,
or not being spiritual enough. Indeed, the explicit blame of
people with serious illness for their failure to cure
themselves in best-selling popular treatments of positive
thinking … is shocking and reprehensible.

Lisa Aspinwall and Richard Tedeschi (2010)

Sue Wilkinson and Celia Kitzinger at Loughborough University studied discussions of positive thinking in breast cancer patients.


There is an extensive social science and psycho-oncology literature on coping with cancer which claims that “thinking positive" is correlated with - and, by extension, causally implicated in - individuals' morbidity and mortality rates, and their overall level of mental health... We show that previous literature overwhelmingly relies on self-report data, which are taken as offering more or less accurate depictions of speakers’ psychological states (i.e. their mental adjustment or coping style). A discursive approach, by contrast, explores talk as a form of action designed for its local interactional context, and pays detailed attention to what statements about “thinking positive" actually mean for speakers in the contexts in which they occur. We show that “thinking positive” functions not as an accurate report of a internal cognitive state, but rather as a conversational idiom, characterised by vagueness and generality, and summarising a socially normative moral requirement; we also show that even those breast cancer patients who report “thinking positive” can also actively resist its moral prescriptions.

Sue Wilkinson & Celia Kitzinger, 2000

Media claims that positive thinking can cure cancer, MECFS, long-covid and any other serious health condition are irresponsible and pseudo-scientific.

Published by dfmarks

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