Bobby Knight 'The Power Of Negative Thinking': Argument Totally Wrong


Even though we love, the truth is that positive thinking will do more for you than negative thinking. In fact, more employers want to hire positive people than negative people. In this economy, if you have been looking for a job for a while, it is easy to focus on the negative, but there are specific things you can do to help yourself focus on the positive. So what’s the attraction of pessimism? 

Basketball coach Bobby Knight believes in the power of negative thinking, as demonstrated in his new book, The Power of Negative Thinking. He believes that there is no reason to dwell on the future — that it is better to concentrate on today, otherwise you are just pursuing wishful thinking. Unfortunately for Coach Knight, the research doesn't back him up. 

A great deal of research supports the argument that optimism is better than pessimism for one’s health and wealth, and this idea behind positive thinking is not new. Dr. Norman Vincent Peale wrote The Power of Positive Thinking in 1952, and it has sold over 5 million copies. Dr. Peale has many prescriptions for positive thinking, but two stood out as simple and in our control: we can choose to be happy (or not) and we can expect the best (or not). The power of positive thinking is within our control, not in someone else’s control. 

Dr. Shelley Taylor and her UCLA Social Neuroscience Lab research assistants: all smiling!

Shelley Taylor, a well-known psychologist at UCLA, wrote a highly influential book in 1991, Positive Illusions, which documents the very real and significant health benefits and other positive outcomes of holding optimistic, self-serving illusions, even when dealing with cancer and other significant stressors. This book made a very deep impact on Aneil when he read it when we both were in graduate school, which was certainly a stressful time for us!  Her impressive body of research has been substantiated by a great many researchers since then, including work at the Center for Positive Organizational Scholarship at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business.

None other than the Mayo Clinic advocates positive thinking from a health perspective, and recommends that we begin with positive self-talk. Research there shows that positive self-talk promotes better health in terms of:

-Increased life span

-Lower rates of depression

-Lower levels of distress

-Greater resistance to the common cold

-Better psychological and physical well-being

-Reduced risk of death from cardiovascular disease

-Better coping skills during hardships and times of stress

Other psychological research supports this and shows that positive thinking promotes resilience.  In one study of Vietnam vets, Charney found that optimism and altruism were critical for promoting resilience.  Humor was also important. Dr. Barbara Fredrickson, a professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, found that resilient people are good at transforming negative feelings into positive ones.

Of course, it’s also not wise to have completely unrealistic expectations (e.g., Steve Jobs believing that he could cure himself of cancer without further treatment or surgery). It’s also fair to say that being “unrealistically” optimistic is not appropriate if you are in a very vulnerable position with few if any resources to call upon, which unfortunately describes a sizable segment of the U.S. population and much of the rest of the world. Nonetheless, the leaders we have studied for two decades have been highly successful, both personally and in terms of helping to improve the world, by holding strikingly positive outlooks on life, even when they’ve faced incredibly challenging circumstances, sometimes at very early ages. We, too, personally faced significant challenges early in life, whether it was losing a mother at 11, or losing a cousin to suicide, and our optimism allowed us to prevail over these and many other challenges.

As we ourselves now march towards AARP membership eligibility, instead of focusing on the negatives of older age, we are taking an “attitude of gratitude,” which is a frequent suggestion experts make in order to cultivate optimism. For example, Karen is thanking someone each week whom has been important to us in her life. It is a good way for her to focus on the positive and not the negative (of aging!). Aneil loves to take people to lunch to thank them for helping him, or for just “being there” for him in good times and bad, or just when he’s being optimistic!

In the final analysis, just ask yourself, who would you rather have at a picnic, Tigger or Eeyore, Pooh, or Rabbit? All of them are necessary for a great set of stories, but we’ll take Tigger’s enthusiasm and Pooh’s honey any day.

Karen and Aneil Mishra are business school professors and authors of Trust is Everything (2008) and Becoming a Trustworthy Leader (2012).