The Case Against Hopewashing | WIRED

Can you imagine that better?

You may have done. This is the main experiment in the studies conducted by Adam Mastroiannia postdoc at Columbia Business School and the author of the newsletter Experiment history. The results suggest that to an almost absurd degree, we all react to that prompt by imagining things getting better.

In the study, researchers asked people to do what you just did: imagine three ways that everyday things (phones, the economy, people’s lives, pets) could be different. They then asked people to rate whether those changes would be better, the same, or worse than the reality of things. And for each item, people imagine better things. They imagine that cars can fly and don’t need gas. They imagine that their pet won’t shed, won’t poop on the carpet, and will never die. Even abstract concepts like love, they imagine is better. “We asked, ‘How can happiness be different??’ and people say, ‘Oh, there could be more to it,'” Mastroianni said. “They don’t say, ‘Oh, maybe less.’ Or ‘Oh, it might be harder to get.’ They don’t say, ‘Oh, love can be more fleeting.’ They say, ‘No, love can be richer. That’s how it could be different.’”

The effect was so strong that Mastroianni thought they ran the stats incorrectly the first time. They did the research with new words, with the Poles, with the Mandarin, and they got the same results every time.

Their results are also not entirely explained by the tendency to be optimistic, the effect in psychology that people tend to want to believe that everything will be okay. Those polled don’t think it’s always certain, or even likely, that their imaginary improvements to cars, pets, and bank accounts will materialize. However, they imagined them anyway.

What does this have to do with the future? Well, we can’t create better tomorrows without first imagining what they will be like. And it turns out, we’re doing it all the time, naturally. Humans seem wired to think about how things could be better. Simply imagining better things is not enough. But it was a start. And that’s an important aspect of hope – the ability to know that things are going badly and still, innately, instinctively, always thinking first of how things could have been better.

At the same time, we cannot let this instinct overwhelm us. There is a real danger in sitting back and letting the desire for hope get in the way of progress. Today, even though posts like Shepherd’s don’t go viral, the spirit that created them hasn’t waned. And today, it’s weaponized into something more sinister.

Instead of titles and lists, we get a dose of positivity from things like this.

This is a Wells Fargo advertisement. It was beautifully produced, showing small businesses from across the United States—bicycle shops, pottery studios, bowling alleys, food carts. Lively voices echo their optimism about the future, telling listeners that now, today, they have hope. The video ends with white text that says WELCOME TO HOPE USA. The message is clear: This bank is helping us all move towards a future full of potential and opportunity. The ad coincides with an initiative to invest in “small businesses as they escape the economic impact of the pandemic.” They say come to us, come to Hope USA.


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