What happens when you get what you wish for?

By Gordon Rugg

A favourite plot device involves someone getting what they wish for, but in a way that leaves them either back where they started, or worse off than when they started.

That plot device ties in with a couple of widespread beliefs about the world.

One is known as the just world hypothesis. As the name implies, this belief holds that there’s an underlying pattern of justice in the world, so that what you get is balanced against what you deserve. Good events, such as winning the lottery, are either a reward for previous good actions, or are counterbalanced by later disaster, to set the balance straight.

This is a comforting belief, because it implies that we don’t need to worry too much about bad things happening to us; in this belief system, we’ll get what we deserve, so if we behave well, things will be fine. There’s the added bonus that we don’t need to feel guilty about other people’s suffering, since that will also balance out one way or another.

Another widespread belief is that hubris – excessive pride or ambition – will be punished by Fate. This is very similar to the tall poppies effect, where a social group disapproves of group members aspiring to or achieving significantly more than the rest of the group.

Both of these beliefs have far-reaching implications; the beliefs and their implications have been studied in some depth, and are well worth reading about.

They’re beliefs, though. What about reality? What actually happens when people get what they wish for?

The short answer is: Usually, not much.

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Images from Wikipedia; sources at the end of this article

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