by Vlad Dolezal on March 23, 2010

This is going to be one of those posts.

I’ve got a fascinating topic and a lot of ideas about the topic, but no clear conclusion.

So I’ll just throw all my ideas out there, and maybe a conclusion will emerge. Or, maybe you guys will be smarter than me, and we’ll come up with something cool in the comments! At the very least, I plan to get you thinking.

Read on to find out why hope makes you swim longer, why playing the lottery is worth it (for those who play it), and why false hope might not be so false after all.

Hope makes you swim 50% longer… at least if you’re a mouse

A team of scientists did a fascinating experiment with mice. They tried testing the effect of hope.

Sounds tricky? You bet. But here’s how they managed:

The scientists separated the mice into two groups. Then they put the mice, one by one, into a tank of water with some milk in it (to make it opaque).

In one group, there was an island in the water which the mice eventually found, and could stand on to stop themselves from drowning.

In the other group, there was no island. No matter how much the mice swam, they could do nothing but slowly run out of strength and slide underwater.

At which point the scientists caught them. Tired, but safe, they let the mice rest.

Then, the next day, they did the second phase of the experiment. This time, all of the mice were put in a tank with no island, so no matter how much they swam, they would eventually drown (if the scientists didn’t fish them out).

The scientists measured how long the mice would swim.

The results? Mice from the first group swam on average for 50% longer.

The mice had a past experience of finding an island, which gave them hope. This simple thing gave them strength to swim for 50% longer than the other group of  mice.

How’s that for “hope gives you strength”?

Why lottery is worth playing (for the people who play it)

Every now and then, I hear smug geeky people saying “Hah, look at those silly poor people playing lottery. Don’t they understand statistics? They get a negative net return on each lottery ticket bought!”

At which point I inwardly laugh at those geeks.

It’s not the poor people who miss the point. It’s the geeks who completely miss the point of lottery.

You see, the lottery doesn’t sell money. Really.

Lottery sells hope.

By buying a ticket, the people get to fantasize about what they would do if they won. How their life would get completely turned around, they could relax and afford luxuries and stop worrying about bills and get recognition and power.

The reason you see a lot more poor people than rich people playing the lottery is not because they’re worse at statistics. It’s because the hope of winning the lottery is a stronger emotional incentive for them.

Often, it’s their only hope of getting out of a rut, getting rid of that annoying 9-5 job they need to keep their family clothed and fed. They see no other way out.

And so they play lottery. Because it gives them hope. It gives them strength.

In the same way the hopeful rats swam 50% longer, these people play lottery, and that lets them keep working at their job day after day without going crazy.

Why I like religion (even though I’m an atheist)

I’ll be honest here. I’ve tried re-writing this section 3 times already, but I’m never really happy with what I’ve got. So instead, I’ll leave the religion-hope link up for discussion.

A few small points:

  • I’m an atheist
  • I’m totally cool with people who believe in God, as long as they don’t try to push their beliefs on me
  • I believe religion is very useful for some people, and hope plays an important role. But I can’t quite get my head around it.

If you believe in God and have any thoughts on the link between religion and hope, please share them in the comments.

Is false hope evil or good?

Now we’re crossing some ethical boundaries. Is hope good even when it’s false?

For example, imagine the lottery didn’t actually produce any winners. All those people “winning the lottery” were just hired actors.

Would it matter?

After all, it would still have exactly the same effect on 999,999 people out of a million. It would give them hope, which is what lottery is all about.

Or imagine a doctor tells you there’s still hope to fight that cancer, even though he’s 99% sure you’ll be dead in a few months. Is that ethical?

If it improves the quality of your remaining life, is it a good thing?

I’ll give you my answer (which can be different from your answer) in a slightly roundabout way.

In the book Brave New World, there’s the character of world controller Mustapha Mond. Near the end, he explains to the main characters that in the past he was a scientist, always looking for the truth. But then he was offered a job in the upper administration of the world… and decided to take that instead, to work towards the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people, even though he had to sacrifice the truth for that.

In other words, he valued happiness above truth.

That’s something we life coaches work with – people’s core values. Each individual’s values will be different, and they’re all exactly right for them.

And I believe your answer to the doctor question depends on your values. Do you value happiness higher than truth, or the other way around?

What do you think of hope?

As you can see, I don’t have any clear conclusion to this post.

Think of it as an invitation for discussion. What do you think of the topics I covered here? What else do you associate with hope that I completely missed out?

Any thoughts are much appreciated!

(image courtesy of DieselDemon)

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Mark March 23, 2010 at 12:44

Interesting post. I hope I don’t get reincarnated as a mouse 😀 (even though I don’t believe in reincarnation)!

I guess what you’re talking about at the end is almost a placebo. If something positive comes from hope, I guess there’s no problem. But when you invest your hope in something that will never happen, then perhaps you’d be better off addressing your unhappiness and actively working to a better life, rather than just hoping for one.

Hope shouldn’t absolve you of responsibility or stop you from taking action.
.-= Mark´s last blog ..How to use FTP with your Blog or Website =-.


farkasdan March 23, 2010 at 13:06

whatever the “true” answer is, it’s good to know how our mind work. but t’s a curse that we humans, due to our higher consciousness, can connect value to the notion of truth. For a mouse, yeah, no question, hope is the favourable option but sure, for some “thinking nerds”, truth releases more “happy chemicals” than false hope (> lie)
.-= farkasdan´s last blog ..Agykutatás hete @ millenáris =-.


Jason Stein March 23, 2010 at 17:04

Hope is one of the central themes in Christianity. As a Christian myself, it continually sustains my daily life. And hope is the primary reason I don’t throw out my Christianity in favor of a completely evolutionary world view; I simply can’t see the hope in it (among other objections).

But on the subject of the hope of the lottery, I take a slightly different view than you. The problem with lotteries is that they are a “voluntary” contribution to someone elses coffers. And they give hope to (or prey on) the people who can least afford to part with their money. Now some people may see this as a win-win; the poor get hope and the rich get money, but I see this as a very subtle method of maintaining a class system and basic inequality.


Sid Savara March 23, 2010 at 17:10

Hey Vlad,

Thanks for writing this! I like how you brought all these different examples and tied them together with a broad common theme

Got me thinking, and I have seen that mouse study before too ;). I’m actually writing an ebook where I reference it, so I always enjoy seeing other posts about it!

With regards to is it ethical to give someone hope that they may yet survive, even if the doctor knows they will almost surely die – I’m not sure about that. If there is finality such as that, I think it may be better to give someone the news so that if they were waiting to do something “on their deathbed” they can come to terms with it and deal with things sooner

Of course, that’s just my opinion. Who knows – maybe if I was in that situation, I would be better off served with hope!
.-= Sid Savara´s last blog ..How to Create Your Personal Development Plan =-.


Vlad Dolezal March 23, 2010 at 19:53


That’s a brilliant point.

I sometimes talk about something similar – mediocrity is often worse than a crap life, because it’s not painful enough to motivate you to change. And if hope moves you from painful to mediocre, then it might be directly counterproductive.

Of course, it can also move you from mediocre to good 🙂


Thanks for the input on the religion bit! (I think I might often get motivated by hope myself… but hope in different things than a religious person.)

I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree on the lottery bit. I think lottery sells something very valuable to those people. Hope is so valuable to them, they’d rather buy that than spend the extra money or clothes or something. (I’ve never been involved in lottery in any way.)


I think we’re getting really philosophical here. 🙂

We could probably talk about the doctor-patient scenario all day and never come up with a clear answer.

I was trying to think of some way to tie hope to practical personal development advice (because that’s what I do), but couldn’t come up with anything super-cool. So for once I threw together and interesting-but-nonactionable post.

If you can think of any practical conclusions relating to hope, please let me know 🙂


Mark March 23, 2010 at 20:05

@Sid – I think there’s a Paulo Coelho book called Veronica Decides to Die which is about a girl who decides to die (you worked that bit out) so takes an overdose. She doesn’t quite take enough to kill herself and wakes up deciding that actually she wants to live. Unfortunately she’s done irreversible damage to her body and will die within the week. There’s also a doctor/hope element to the story. I think you might like it.


Hulbert March 23, 2010 at 23:12

Hi Vlad, I think you did come to a conclusion towards the end about hope. Hope, I think, is about happiness when life is full of misery.

This is going to be kind of random, but a long time ago I was watching an episode of Lost. The main character Jack, before he got stranded on the island, started off as a doctor, a really blunt and truthful doctor. If the patient was going to die, he would tell them the truth with 0% hope.

After doing this, his dad goes up to him and tells him that people like to hear hope, even if it’s not real. I don’t remember exactly, but I think the patient he told that was going to die ended up surviving. This changed his mindset because he would later have to use this type of mentality to survive on the island and help others survive as well.

Like that person you described in the end, he valued happiness more than the truth. I think that’s what hope gives to us, a certain type of false happiness. Sometimes that is more valuable than the truth.


Vlad Dolezal March 24, 2010 at 11:20


Good point. That’s actually a good summary of hope!

I knew there was a conclusion in there somewhere. I also knew I needed someone smarter (or more perceptive) than me to notice it 😉


sowmya March 31, 2010 at 02:56

great topics
some more on God please…

and happiness vs truth is an extremely interesting conv…
happiness…and truth sometimes may be mutually exclusive…and if not telling the truth gives happiness..then go for it…
yet…in my own life…this has made me unhappy…so thats where i have to get unstuck…cos how far do yu go to get unhappiness while denying the truth…

I think you are doing a greta job
i enjoy your posts tremondously


sowmya March 31, 2010 at 02:59

cos how far do yu go to get happiness while denying the truth…

sorry typo..the last line shld read this way…:)
.-= sowmya´s last blog ..WSD-20th march:A day for stories..isnt every day one?!! =-.


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