April 15, 2010
I’m always fascinated when society decides to label some type of behavior as a mental problem. For example, Tiger Woods is allegedly being treated for sex addiction while his real problem is some sort of unusual blindness to risk and consequences. The common name for that is optimism. That optimism is probably a big part of what makes him a spectacular golfer. No one would practice as much as he did from an early age without some sort of crazy optimism that he was The One. And it has to help your nerves in critical situations if you are optimistic that your putt will go in. If Tiger hadn’t succeeded in becoming the greatest golfer of his day, he’d be the crazy caddy with delusions of greatness. The only difference between crazy and confident is that the confident guy was lucky enough to have the resources to pull it off. Somewhere in China there’s a guy with just as much golfing talent and optimism as Tiger. He’s a bus boy. And a virgin.
In summary, optimism paired with luck is considered greatness, whereas optimism paired with a Y chromosome is considered sex addiction.
I also wonder about gullibility. At what point does normal, daily gullibility rise to the level of something that needs a medical label and some sort of pharmacological treatment? For the sake of this discussion, let’s assume that your particular religion is the true one. That means that all the people who don’t share your views – all several billion of them – are profoundly gullible. Luckily for them, whenever the majority of people have a particular quality, it is considered normal by definition.
As a practical matter, one big problem with labeling gullibility as a mental problem is that no group of researchers would agree on how to test for it. That meeting might go like this:
Researcher One: What if we test for belief in Santa Claus, alien abductions, and ghosts?
Researcher Two: Perfect. Except remove the ghost part because those are real.
Researcher Three: I was abducted by aliens once.
Researcher Four: I quit.
Researcher Two: Don’t give up! Where’s your optimism?