General stuff Work and Career

The mindset fallacy – Positive thoughts do NOT make you rich…

I’ve been an avid reader of self-help books, such as the books “The Cashflow Quadrant” or “Rich dad, poor dad” by Robert T. Kiyosaki and Napoleon Hills’ “Success through a positive mental attitude”. And while the books have helped me get a solid financial footing, the base premise is incorrect. Books like these argue that you need to start with your mindset, and success will follow.

It’s an argument which intuitively makes sense, and it’s one which has been repeated so many times that it is now one of those “truths universally acknowledged”. Many blogs (such as this one, which triggered me to write this response) repeat the message: don’t think in limitations, think in possibilities. Be positive, and take the right steps.

Implicitly, these are messages saying that poverty is your own choice. Just choose a different mindset, and you’re done. I believed this for years.

But it’s wrong

Homeless man (Photo: Myriams-Photo’s, via

The thing is, it isn’t true. If I were to point at my own situation (after years of positivity, I am STILL not a millionaire) it would be easy to just say “yeah, you clearly, deep down, don’t really BELIEVE”. And we’d end up in an argument which cannot be won.

But it isn’t about me. Science tells us it isn’t true. Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Sharif work in the field of behavioral science and economics. This field studies human behaviour when presented with the economic reality. Makes sense, but it’s a new field, because for decades, the economic academics just assumed everyone would act rational.

They wrote a book about their findings, Scarcity: The True Cost of Not Having Enough about living with scarcity. In short: living with scarcity means your brain goes into survival mode. Whether you are short of time, friends or cash, the neurological mechanism is the same. There is NOTHING you can do about it, there is no choice: your brain shuts down and goes into short-term survival mode.

The result: behaviour which may alleviate the pain for a short while, but which aggravates the problem on the long term. In their words: “Instead, it appears that poverty itself reduces cognitive capacity. We suggest that this is because poverty-related concerns consume mental resources, leaving less for other tasks. These data provide a previously unexamined perspective and help explain a spectrum of behaviors among the poor.” (Source)

But…but… they story is so compelling

This seems completely opposite to the message we learn from the books. These books tell us that rich people have a different mindset, which results in success.

Indeed, rich people DO have a mindset which assumes abundance, which sees opportunities, and which helps them make long term decision. But, as any university freshman can (or should be able to tell you): correlation does not equal causality. Or in normal words: just because two things occur together, doesn’t mean that one causes the other.

In this particular instance, it is quite well possible, and likely, that the mindset is influenced by wealth (or lack thereof).

Anecdotical evidence points in the same way: I’ve seen a few really positive people sink into a depression after losing their job (and income). On the other side, I’ve seen examples of people who had abandoned all hope, but got lucky and landed a job. First the income came, then the can-do attitude.

Stop spreading the insult

Considering that it has been shown scientifically that the mindset of the poor is anything but a choice, it is easy to see why the advice to “just change your mindset” is an insult. It assumes people make a choice which causes poverty. This, in turn, assumes people actually HAVE a choice they can make. You are basically telling people that their suffering is their own fault. That’s, simply put, just rude.

But it is also not effective. Because people may actually believe this stuff, and try to live by the advice given. And fail, because their brain (which is just as wonderful as yours) cannot access the higher cognitive functions. The result is predictable: they fail and lose motivation. They might just give up.

So while you’re giving advice with the intention to help, you’re insulting them AND hurting them. I’m sure this isn’t your intention.

So please stop spreading the lie. Yes, at face value it’s a sympathetic lie, but it’s still a lie. I wish it were that simple. But the advice is counter productive. Instead, please… read the book, and learn from it.

It may take a while before you can accept the message (it sure took me some), but that doesn’t make it untrue.

I know I have had difficulty to accept it…

Sources and further reading:

Schience Mag:
Book: Scarcity: The True Cost of Not Having Enough
Harvard University
The Guardian:


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