You Can't Trick Someone into Hope. It Doesn't Work Like That.

Philosophers know the difference between real hope and fool's hope.

You Can't Trick Someone into Hope. It Doesn't Work Like That.
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If you haven't heard of Sir Martin Frobisher, you should look him up sometime. He was basically a pirate. This pirate thought he discovered gold in Canada. His discovery got the queen so excited, she paid him a fortune to mine and ship more than a thousand tons of ore back to England. Apparently, they didn't bother to examine it. They were that sure of themselves. Turns out, the pirate had wasted the queen's money on pyrite, fool's gold.

A pirate fooled by pyrite, imagine that.

When I was a kid, we went panning for gold. We learned about the first Gold Rush in the 1820s. We learned the difference between real gold and fool's gold. It's prettier than real gold, but you can pound it into dust. If you want to test your gold, you have to beat it with a hammer.

That's how you know you've got the real thing.

Hope works the same way.

According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ancient philosophers defined hope “mostly as an attitude to reality that [was] based on insufficient insight into what is true or good.”

They were suspicious of it.

As the great stoic Seneca wrote, hope always accompanies fear. He described the two as “bound up with one another… like a prisoner and the escort he is handcuffed to.” Hope by itself didn’t make things better. Both fear and hope “belong to a mind in suspense… Both are mainly due to projecting our thoughts far ahead of us instead of adapting ourselves to the present.” That's what philosophy was about, adapting yourself to present realities.

Let's say your mom gets diagnosed with stage four cancer. Instead of telling her the truth about her condition, the doctor lies. He doesn't tell her anything about her odds of survival. He only describes rare cases of patients making miraculous recoveries. She starts to think she'll recover. She blows her life savings on all kinds of treatments. Then she dies. Your mom often talked about wanting to retire early and spend more time with family.

Now she won't get to.

Let's say the company you work for starts going bankrupt. Instead of telling you the truth, the CEO gives speeches telling everyone everything's going to be okay. Your boss discourages you from looking for a job. You even turn down an offer from a startup because all the VPs express so much confident optimism about navigating the crisis. A month later, you get laid off.

You'd probably be upset.

Now let's say there's a terrible threat to life on the planet. Instead of telling everyone the truth, the governments of the world decide to hide or downplay the most disturbing facts. They assure everyone their personal risks are low. They promise the richest, most powerful people in the world are going to solve the problem. Instead, they're all building bunkers and secretly making the problem worse, simply to maximize their profits.

Tell me how you'd feel.

Still hopeful?

In The Anatomy of Hope, Harvard medical professor Jerome Groopman talks about the importance of informed hope. Individuals and communities can demonstrate astonishing amounts of resistance and perseverance, but only when they have all of the necessary information.

You can't trick someone into hope.

It doesn't work that way.

There's a lot of research on the benefits of hope. When someone acts on hope, they do better in school. They make better decisions. The psychologist Charles Synder refers to all of this as the theory of hope. It asserts that hope helps people set goals while working harder and overcoming obstacles.

There's a catch.

Your hope has to be grounded in reality. You have to have all the facts. Otherwise, you're not acting on hope. You're acting on false hope.

That's dangerous.

There's a different model of hope, and it's called false hope syndrome (FHS). When someone acts on false hope, they set unrealistic goals. They spend more time talking about their goals than pursuing them. They celebrate hollow milestones. They downplay and minimize evidence about their lack of progress. In the end, they're more likely to give up. Then they get angry.

Sound familiar?

You could say that western cultures are drowning in FHS lately. Our leaders continue to set unrealistic goals, whether it comes to public health or the collapse of our climate. They don't achieve these goals. They celebrate hollow milestones. They even lower the bar of achievement.

They lie about their progress.

They downplay threats.

Bert Musschenga distinguishes between hope and false hope. As he argues, there's an "intimate relation between false hope and ignorance." You can't just cross your fingers. "What matters for evaluating a person's hope is not only whether it is realistic, but also whether it is reasonable in the light of the aim and goals that a person strives for." False hope happens when someone acts on beliefs instead of information. If a woman buys a house based on the 10 percent chance of getting a job in the area, she's not acting on hope.

She's acting on false hope.

There's a difference.

From a philosophical standpoint, it's wrong to encourage false hope by withholding or omitting vital information. It's also wrong to encourage false hope by downplaying or minimizing the dangers and risks someone faces. The false hope causes them to make poor decisions that harm themselves and others. It's not real hope, because it's born from ignorance.

False hope can also stem from self-deception.

Most of the research on hope doesn't take false hope into account. Studies show that it has negative consequences. For example, one major study found that false hope motivates people to make poor financial decisions. When they have all the facts, they make better choices.

There's a long tradition of doctors and other experts withholding information from patients or the general public because they think it leads to despair or hopelessness.

They're wrong.

From a philosophical perspective, despair and hopelessness don't refer to someone's specific hopes. It refers to their overall ability to hope. You can give up on a particular hope. It doesn't depress you.

It liberates you.

The hopium we see in the mainstream views on pandemics and climate change is saturated in false hope and false hope syndrome. Politicians and television-friendly "experts" downplay and minimize the disasters happening right in front of us. They hide or obscure information the public needs in order to make better choices about their health and the planet.

In the end, FHS does far more harm than good. False hope doesn't motivate anyone to persevere. It doesn't build resilience. It results in poor decisions. It impedes progress by supporting the status quo.

We're watching it happen.

Real hope can only exist if everyone understands all the facts in a situation, along with all the risks and dangers. They're only showing hope if they make informed, responsible decisions. It's worth repeating:

You can't trick someone into hope.

It doesn't work like that.

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