"Most people don't give up easily on their dreams. They have to be given a graphic picture of what failure will look like if they don't make it," says Patrick Carroll, co-author of the study and assistant professor of psychology at Ohio State University at Lima.
The findings are especially interesting for college students as they try to find the best career path in an uncertain job market.
Carroll said he sees the relevance of this research nearly every day, as students seek his input about career plans or the possibility of graduate school. Sometimes these students have not earned good enough grades or shown the work ethic they would need to succeed at higher levels, he said.
Still, he doesn't often use what he knows to bring these students back to reality.
Educators are trying to lead students to the most realistic career options, Carroll says. "You want to encourage students to pursue their dreams, but you don't want to give them false hope about their abilities and talents. It's a fine line."
"We have a brilliant ability to spin, deflect or outright dismiss undesired evidence that we can't do something," Carroll said. "We try to find reasons to believe."
Carroll conducted the study with Robert Arkin, professor of psychology at Ohio State, and James Sheppard, professor of psychology at the University of Florida. The research included two similar studies involving separate groups of 64 and 70 upper-class business and psychology students at Ohio State.
The research team is now onto a new focus: What happens when people have to reject certain goals for the future, and whether this process hurts them or helps them find new goals.
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