Wishful Thinking: What Is It and What Are The Consequences?

Wisful thinking leads us to make opinions and decisions based on our desires rather than on evidence. Find out how it affects us and healthier alternatives in this article.
Wishful Thinking: What Is It and What Are The Consequences?
Elena Sanz

Written and verified by the psychologist Elena Sanz.

Last update: 14 April, 2023

We all want to think that our opinions are based on logical criteria and that we’re realistic and rational when making decisions. But the truth is that we’re more biased than we think and often fall into the trap of so-called wishful thinking.

This type of thinking takes hold of us when we cling to the possibility that pleases us the most and that suits us the best, and we set aside realism and evidence. Believing that our desires are possible, that reality conforms to our expectations, feels good. However, it can have unpleasant consequences.

What is wishful thinking?

Wishful thinking is thinking based on emotions, desire, and illusion rather than evidence. It should be expected that, when forming an opinion, we do so based on facts and solid arguments. And that, when making a decision, we would be able to analyze the various possibilities and resolve them realistically.

But when wishful thinking kicks in, this doesn’tt happen. On the contrary, we stick to that idea that pleases us, to that possibility that makes us feel good. In doing so, we close ourselves off to any contrary evidence.

To better understand this concept, it’s important to keep in mind that it’s based on the following parameters.

An active imagination

Imagination is the human capacity to create mental scenarios in the absence of concrete facts to support them. In our internal world, we can generate images of all kinds and we can shuffle through different perspectives and resolutions of a situation.

When we are subject to wishful thinking, we recreate situations that fit our expectations and leave aside all the others that don’t. We only value the options that would produce a positive outcome.

A woman with delusional thinking
It’s not uncommon for us to dwell on what we imagine to be possible simple because we desire it without having a solid basis.

We think you may also enjoy reading this article: Positive Thinking: How to Use it for Daily Benefits


Instead of turning to rationality, in this case, the thought process is purely based on our emotions. What would make me feel good? Then, we convince ourselves that this is real, ignoring any other possibilities.


This cognitive bias appears when we place desire at the center of the thought process. Imagine, for instance, that you have a pre-set goal and you mold my beliefs, opinions, and decisions to fit this; even if the evidence is against it. In short, you think something is true just because you desire it.

How does wishful thinking affect us?

The truth is that thinking and making opinions and decisions based on our emotions and desires isn’t always a bad thing.. There are certain circumstances in which it can be to our advantage.

For example, when we think positively of a child (e.g., that she or he is very intelligent), we’re likely to provide them with the appropriate stimulation and opportunities to further develop their intellect and fulfill our initial perception. This is the so-called Pygmalion effect.

The same can happen in our relationship as a couple. It has been seen that, if we choose to expect the best from our partner, it’s possible that the relationship will improve or be more satisfactory because we will be acting from that belief and propitiating a climate of positive exchanges.

Likewise, the placebo effect could be a good example of how this illusory thinking benefits us. If a person chooses to believe that a certain pill will cure his or her ailments, he or she may automatically end up feeling better.

The thought has not been formed on the basis of evidence, but from a desire (to be cured) and a possibility that pleases. The result, however, has been positive.

Delusional thinking leads us to make opinions and decisions based on our desires rather than on evidence
The placebo effect has proponents and detractors in medicine. It’s yet another example of wishful thinking.

Like this article? You may also like to read: What to Do to Stop Overthinking? 6 Tips

The consequences of wishful thinking

However, the consequences are not always favorable. In fact, they can be harmful and dangerous.

Wishful thinking does not come out of nowhere. Like so many other cognitive biases, it is the fruit of evolution.

In the past, these mental shortcuts allowed our fellow humans to survive. That is why they are still present in us. However, today, in a completely different environment, they can harm us.

In this case, wishful thinking can lead us to make bad decisions and hold inflexible and irrational positions. There are many examples of this:

  • Offering blind support to a political party while completely denying its mistakes and ignoring its bad actions.
  • Avoiding seeking medical attention by clinging to the belief that we are healthy (or will be soon), just because we wish so and it’s what we like to think.
  • Making a bad business decision because we are driven by emotion rather than evidence of risk.
  • Thinking that we’re very good at our job or a particular skill can lead us to settle into an invented reality and not strive to truly improve.
  • Staying in toxic and harmful relationships by clinging to the idea that the other person will or will change soon can be extremely harmful.

In short, wishful thinking can lead us to very complicated situations with serious consequences. Therefore, it’s important that we become aware of these deceptions and know how to be logical and realistic when making decisions.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Matute, H. (2019). Ilusiones y sesgos cognitivos. Revista Investigación y Ciencia. Disponible en: https://www.investigacionyciencia.es/files/34180.pdf
  • McNulty, J. K., & Karney, B. R. (2004). Positive expectations in the early years of marriage: Should couples expect the best or brace for the worst?. Journal of personality and social psychology86(5), 729.
  • Rosenthal, R., & Jacobson, L. (1968). Pygmalion in the classroom. The urban review3(1), 16-20

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.