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Choiceology: Season 8 Episode 6


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Anticipating and planning for obstacles can sometimes be more powerful than adopting a positive mindset.

A positive attitude is important when embarking on any new endeavor. However, as you may have heard in previous episodes of Choiceology with Katy Milkman, overoptimism also can blind you to important information.

In this episode, we look at a strategy that can help counteract the effects of overoptimism and overconfidence. You could call it the power of negative thinking.

We begin with the amazing story of a lake in Louisiana that completely disappeared in a matter of hours. An oil drilling accident in 1980 created a giant sinkhole in Lake Peigneur that rapidly drained massive amounts of water into an active salt mine, swallowing several boats and barges and large chunks of land in the process. The event was catastrophic, but no lives were lost, thanks in part to robust emergency planning.

You’ll hear first-hand accounts of the dramatic event from Michael Richard, Sr., whose family owns and operates a garden and a nursery on the shores of Lake Peigneur, and from Dr. Kelvin Wu, who describes the scene in the salt mine as the disaster unfolded.

Dr. Kelvin Wu is a retired mining engineer and former chief of the Mine Waste & Geotechnical Engineering Division at the Mine Safety and Health Administration.

Michael Richard, Sr., owns and runs Rip Van Winkle Gardens and Live Oak Gardens on Lake Peigneur, Louisiana.

Emergency planning played an important role in the outcome of this disaster. But planning for the worst needn’t be limited to life and death scenarios.

Annie Duke joins Katy to argue that negative thinking—imagining failure in order to manage or prevent it— can actually help improve the odds of success when planning anything from a product launch to a birthday party. She argues that people shy away from negative thinking because it can feel unpleasant. But if you push through that unpleasantness, negative thinking can motivate you to take positive preemptive steps.

Annie Duke is an author and decision strategist. You can read more about negative thinking in her book How to Decide.

Finally, Katy differentiates negative thinking from pessimistic thinking. While pessimistic thinking can drain motivation and prevent you from setting goals, negative thinking can help you identify certain problems before they arise and raise your chances of success.

Choiceology is an original podcast from Charles Schwab. For more on the series, visit

If you enjoy the show, please leave a rating or review on Apple Podcasts.

Click to show the transcript

Speaker 1: A positive point of view could do so much for a person. If in our thoughts, we constantly fix attention upon sinister expectations of dire events that might happen, the result will be constantly to feel insecure. I discovered that if you expect the worst, you’re likely to get the worst. And if you expect the best, you’re likely to get the best. It’s the power of positive thinking.

Katy Milkman: Norman Vincent Peale’s 1952 book The Power of Positive Thinking had a huge influence on popular notions about what it takes to be successful, healthy, and happy. And while a positive mindset can be useful when you set out to achieve a difficult goal, there’s another approach that can sometimes serve you better, according to science.

In this episode of the podcast, we’ll talk about the power of negative thinking. You’ll hear how lives were saved during a freak mining accident on a lake in Louisiana. And I’ll speak with author and decision strategist Annie Duke about why imagining failure can lead to better outcomes.

I’m Dr. Katy Milkman, and this is Choiceology, an original podcast from Charles Schwab. It’s a show about the psychology and economics behind our decisions. We bring you true stories involving high stakes moments. And then we explore the latest research in behavioral science to help you make better judgments and avoid costly mistakes.

Mike Richard: My name is Michael Richard, Sr. I live in Jefferson Island, Louisiana, on the shore of Lake Peigneur.

Katy Milkman: Lake Peigneur is a lovely spot about 25 miles from Lafayette and about 10 miles inland. The beautifully manicured Rip Van Winkle Gardens are on the southeast side, and a little further south there’s a plant nursery called Live Oak Gardens. Mike Richard’s family owns and runs both of these businesses.

Mike Richard: My whole family lives here. My daughter runs Rip Van Winkle Gardens, which is a public garden with a full-service restaurant and wedding reception facilities. And my son runs Live Oak Gardens Wholesale Nursery, which is a production nursery for landscape plants. And my mother lives here, and she’s 92 now.

Katy Milkman: Lake Peigneur is the deepest lake in Louisiana, 200 feet at maximum depth, but it hasn’t always been that way. It used to be only 10 feet at its deepest point. One day over 40 years ago, the lake changed dramatically. It was the morning of November 20th, 1980.

Mike Richard: It started like any other day, just routine. We would go jogging first thing in the morning. My sister was living with us at the time, and she had been awakened by a trembling. It felt like someone was shaking her bed at 5:45 in the morning. Then later that morning, we went to work at 7:00 as usual. And I remember going in my office, and I felt a vibration. And I walked out onto the front porch where we had a fountain built into the foundation of the building. And the water in the fountain was sloshing back and forth like a bathtub when you get up out of the bathtub quickly. And that indicated the whole place was moving.

Katy Milkman: There was an active oil rig on the lake at the time. The 12 men on the rig noticed that their drill had seized up, and they couldn’t get it free.

Mike Richard: And that’s exactly when the drilling rig punctured the salt mine, and it caused a seismic shock.

Katy Milkman: The oil company’s drill had accidentally cut into a shaft of the Diamond Crystal salt mine. It was an active mine with tunnels carved through the rock under the lake. The drill had hit the top of a salt dome, the highest point in a huge, cavernous excavation in a salt deposit. Lake water began rushing into the mine through the drill hole, which was getting bigger and bigger. To make matters worse, there were 48 miners working at the time, most more than 1,500 feet below the surface.

Mike Richard: And one of the employees, he was an electrician, was checking out something on the 1,300-foot level, which was an area that was mined out, that was no longer active. All the active mining was occurring at the 1,500-foot and the 1,800-foot levels. And he heard a noise, and he shined his light ahead of it because all of this is in the dark. And he noticed where the noise was coming from. It was empty oil drums floating and banging into the walls and banging into each other. It was creating a lot of racket, and the drums were riding on water that was rushing into the mine.

Katy Milkman: Torrents of water were pouring into the mine from the lake above. The miners were particularly vulnerable because the freight and service elevators stopped well short of the active work area. The men would have to hike up to the rescue chamber at the 1300-foot level as water rushed into the tunnels.

Mike Richard: But the elevators can only carry so many people. And so imagine waiting your turn to get a lift up from a thousand feet below the ground, up to the surface. Must’ve been really stressful.

Katy Milkman: Back on the surface, the men from the oil rig watched as the rig began to list heavily and sink into the lake.

Mike Richard: Because it’s sitting on pilings that are driven into the lake bottom, that all the pilings are being undermined by the erosion of the sand and soil that holds the whole drilling rig up. So they started evacuating the drilling rig, and the drilling rig started listing or leaning, and eventually it fell over and then disappeared. It went down into the crater that was farming below the surface of the water. And there’s a large vortex forming at that point.

Katy Milkman: The entire 150-foot-high oil derrick fell and then vanished into the lake. Remember, this was a lake that was only 10 feet at its deepest point. It averaged only three feet deep. The oil rig disappeared at around 7:25 a.m., and a massive sink hole opened up and grew.

Mike Richard: The total diameter of the crater is one half mile by one mile.

Katy Milkman: It was massive, likely one of the largest human-caused sinkholes in the world. Luckily, Mike managed to evacuate his family and all of his staff at the gardens.

Mike Richard: At one point, the crater was growing away from us, and then it changed direction and started growing toward us. And at that point, the Sheriff’s Department advised us it was time to move on and get out, because it was obvious that it was going to take the house and more land in our direction.

I had a PA system, and I remember announcing on the PA system for everyone to evacuate. And I guess they could tell by the tone of my voice, that it was something serious. We had never asked anyone to evacuate before. And I remember seeing the employees running from their job locations to their vehicles and quickly speed away, get off the property.

Katy Milkman: That giant whirlpool swirling around this crater consumed trees and boats and barges and docks and a parking lot—and a huge chunk of Jefferson Island, where Mike lives.

Mike Richard: From 5:45 in the morning till about 4:00 in the afternoon, it gobbled up acres of land and made a sinkhole that the middle of it was approximately 1,300 feet deep. Gobbled up all of the water, and that at the time it was about a 1300-acre lake.      

There were 11 barges, and these barges are about 200 feet long, and they carry a couple of thousand tons of salt. Some of them were loaded with salt and some of them were empty, and some of them were buried with mudslides. And then a day later, some of them that weren’t loaded with salt popped up to the surface, but the loaded barges never did. They’re still down there along with two drilling rigs. It took 40 hours for the Bayou Carlin flowing back from Vermilion Bay in the inter-coastal canal, which is 10 miles away, to backfill the lake and the crater. There was so much water flowing in and the water level in the bayou was so low that all the shrimp boats were sitting on the bottom. And there was just a small channel of water.

Katy Milkman: At one point, the water flowing into the salt mine formed a huge waterfall, the highest in Louisiana.

Mike Richard: So the water coming down the canal flowing from the south was falling over a sheer drop of about 150 feet. It was like a movie. You’re just a spectator. And they could hear 10 miles away in New Iberia, they could hear the sound of the air being displaced by the water rushing into the mine. So the water’s coming in faster than the air could escape. So it’s like a huge air compressor with the pressure being released. And toward the end, when it filled up the mine, there was a geyser that went up maybe 200 feet.

Katy Milkman: By the end of the day, the lake area was completely transformed.

Mike Richard: It was spectacular to see the whole lake bottom exposed and the crater with all of the fissures and trees laying down, and all the chaos.

Katy Milkman: The erosion continued for some time. And there was a fire where the oil rig had been. As you might guess, the whole thing was an absolute disaster for the local economy.

Mike Richard: When this calamity happened, it put 260 people out of work. And it had been a big employer in this area since 1920. At the present time when this happened, they were producing about 1.5 million tons of salt a year. So it had a big impact on the employment in the local economy.

Katy Milkman: And it was personally devastating for Mike and his business at the time.

Mike Richard: There was a glass house that was a greenhouse conservatory. There was an 18,000-square-foot building. We had about 3,000 species of exotic plants in it. We had a new reception center. And all this was built to last. And it took me three years to get all of this done. And we opened in February, and all of those buildings were destroyed on November the 20th, on that fateful day.

Personally, I used to have a lot of dreams about it. The recurring dream I had was my wife and kids were trapped inside the house that sank, and they couldn’t get out. And I was faced with the prospect of having them drown. And it was just a traumatic thing that just kept repeating. But fortunately, time cures.

Katy Milkman: As bad as it was, it could have been much, much worse. All of the oil workers, the boat crews, and everyone on and around the lake, including Mike’s family and employees, managed to get to safety, and all 48 miners and three visitors were successfully evacuated from the Diamond Crystal mine.

Kelvin Wu: It’s a beautiful area. You’ve got Live Oak Garden. It was a beautiful garden. It’s a tourist area.

Katy Milkman: This is Dr. Kelvin Wu. He’s a retired mining engineer who worked at the time with the Mine Safety and Health Administration to investigate the accident at Lake Peigneur.

Kelvin Wu: First time I went in those mines, I was a little surprised myself. It’s huge. You don’t even see by the headlights on your cap. You tried to look at the roof, you couldn’t see it. That’s how high those are.

Katy Milkman: Mining is notoriously dangerous, particularly when it’s close to water.

Kelvin Wu: Mining adjacent to water body or under water body is always a hazard. Because after you mine, you took the material out, the ground will readjust itself. You had to be concerned if a major breakage. And then you have to be very careful on the escape routes and how to design it, should’ve been included in the evacuation plan. And my emergency plan, basically dealing with all kinds of accident—explosion, water, roof falls—always planned for the worst, because those are the things that you don’t know when an emergency happens.

Katy Milkman: Planning for the worst is baked into mining operations.

Kelvin Wu: Fortunately for them is they have a required exercise on August 4th to 7th, 1980. The accident happened on November. And so they had a practice just a couple months before that. So everybody’s mind’s still fresh. They did a good job. They reviewed evacuation plan on November 17th at a safety meeting. Every time people goes underground, their supervisor or foreman will get their group to have a safety meeting. They reviewed the evacuation plan.

Katy Milkman: The first step in an emergency is to notify everyone.

Kelvin Wu: Notify every section. If the phone is functioning, we will call. They use lights, blink the lights, to give the signals. They will show up to a predetermined location. Then try to get out either by the elevators or walking out. If the foreman knows what his plan is, what he should do and do the things he is trained for, if he can keep calm, chances usually be fairly good the group will be safe. If the leader gets excited, they’re going to cause problems. You got to keep the cool head.

Katy Milkman: It’s hard to keep a cool head when you’re a quarter mile underground in pitch darkness, except for your helmet lights, and your escape route is a rudimentary metal cage on an elevator. But the miners knew the drill.

Kelvin Wu: At the 1,300 level, the elevator was waiting there. The cage is waiting at the 1,300 level. When the people get into the cage, water is almost above their knee. So you can see everybody was quite calm and knows what they’re supposed to do. The people couldn’t get into the cage, they’ll go to the incline, walk to the thousand-foot level. And they waited at a thousand-foot level. So everybody followed procedures. So they were able to get everybody out safely.

Katy Milkman: The miners and supervisors had done a good job following a procedure designed for a worst-case scenario.

Kelvin Wu: When I get there the next morning, the water is still rushing back in, all those boats still in that whirlpool. And so things are still going on. The fire on the lake is still there. It took a couple of days before you can make a decision to get on the lake to extinguish the fire. So it took about four or five days until everything stabilized, and local residents were allowed back to their home. It was quite nervous that few days, because you have to make a decision based on the technical information. It’s a judgment. Hopefully you made it right. Don’t get anybody hurt.

Katy Milkman: For Kelvin Wu, the incident was an example of why it pays to plan for the worst. For Mike Richard, it’s a reminder to hope for the best. Mike and his family rebuilt their businesses and continue to plan for a future on Lake Peigneur.

Mike Richard: Last year, we bought the land where the salt mine had been. It looks out over the whole lake from a higher elevation, and I’m in the process of getting it restored after 40 years of being abandoned. And so we have plans to develop that property and lakefront cottages. That’s about a mile of lake frontage. Hopefully one day, if I can, we’re going to build a restaurant that would be called the Salt Mine. So that’s my dream for right now.

Katy Milkman: Mike Richard owns Rip Van Winkle Gardens and Live Oak Gardens on Lake Peigneur, Louisiana. Dr. Kelvin Wu is a retired mining engineer and former chief of Mine Waste & Geotechnical Engineering Division at the Mine Safety and Health Administration.  I have links in the show notes and at

It seems like a miracle that no one was killed or seriously injured in this freak accident. And good luck certainly played a part in the outcome. But that positive outcome was also due, in part, to excellent worst-case scenario planning, particularly by the staff at the Diamond Crystal salt mine. The company was obliged by law to have an evacuation plan and to rehearse that plan twice a year. And it turns out that planning for failure, whether it’s required or optional, can have surprisingly large benefits, even when lives aren’t at stake.

Imagining failure is unpleasant. In most of our endeavors, we prefer to imagine positive outcomes, to believe in ourselves and our capabilities for success. As I mentioned earlier in this episode, there’s a bestselling book called The Power of Positive Thinking. And if you listen to our previous episode on the placebo effect, you know that expectations of success do seem to play at least some small role in helping us achieve actual success.

But there’s power in negative thinking too, and particularly in planning for the worst. Unfortunately, planning for bad outcomes is a step most of us don’t take, unless we’re prompted to consider what might go wrong and what obstacles could stand in our way when we’re pursuing a goal. But for good reason, there aren’t laws forcing us to plan for the worst when it comes to most decisions in our personal and professional lives. That means most of the time it’s up to us to get this right.

Annie Duke is an author and decision strategist. Her book How to Decide highlights the power of negative thinking. She joined me to talk about the positive benefits of a negative frame.

Hi, Annie, thank you so much for joining me today.

Annie Duke: Thank you for having me. I’m excited anytime I get to talk to you.

Katy Milkman: Well, I’m really excited to talk to you about this very counterintuitive concept. Could you first just explain what negative thinking is?

Annie Duke: I think the best way to start talking about negative thinking is to say what it’s not. It doesn’t mean that you’re not setting positive goals for yourself, or that you’re trying to set the bar super low for yourself, because you think so little of who you are. You’re still setting positive north stars for yourself and lofty goals that you would like to reach. And you’re trying just as hard as if you were doing positive thinking, hopefully, to believe in yourself and believe that you can actually make it there.

Where positive thinking and negative thinking actually diverge is in thinking about the route that you get there. So with positive thinking, you’re imagining this positive goal and saying, “I’m going to succeed along the way.” And you’re sort of imagining successfully making it to the goal and how that’s going to feel and conquering the world.

With negative thinking, what you do is you imagine the exact same goal, but you say to yourself, “Let me imagine that I failed to reach this goal. So I was trying to reach the same goal, but let me imagine that I actually failed to do so. Why did that happen?” Gabriele Oettingen at NYU really has a lot of very deep work on this, shows that you’re actually much more likely to succeed if you imagine that you failed to reach this positive goal than if you just imagine that you succeed at that positive goal. And part of the reason for that probably is that you just identify the obstacles that are going to stand in your way, and then having done that, you can actually do something about them to reduce the chance that they actually trip you up, or cause you to quit, or derail you on your way to the goal that you’re trying to reach.

The other thing I think it does is it prepares you to not get derailed when the bad thing happens, because you can make a plan in advance for what you’re going to do if something goes wrong.

Gabriele Oettingen at NYU, she’s done so many studies across so many different domains, but I’ll give you an example of one of the studies. She did some work on people who were in a weight loss program who wanted to lose 50 pounds or more. So these people obviously have a large amount of weight that they want to lose. And half the subjects were doing what we would call positive thinking, where they were imagining that they successfully lost the weight, and they went to the gym, and they ate healthy, and all their friends noticed how great they looked, and their love life improved, and so and so forth. So they were sort of positive fantasizing and positive thinking.

And the other half were told to sort of imagine if things didn’t go well. So they’re imagining, “What if I don't lose the weight? What if my friends don’t even notice? What if I’m still not happy with my body afterwards? What if I fail to go to the gym?” So on, so forth.

So it’s our intuition is, well, those people would do worse because they’re imagining failure. Not only do they not do worse, but they lose 26 pounds, on average, more than the group who engages in this sort of positive fantasizing.

Katy Milkman: Wow.

Annie Duke: It’s such a huge result. It’s surprising. And I think it’s surprising because it intuitively feels like imagining success would be so motivating. Like, “Oh, my love life’s going to be great. And all my friends are going to notice. I’m going to go to the store, and I’m going to be able to buy every piece of clothing that I want, and I’m going to live longer. It’s going to be great.” You know, so why wouldn’t you do better? But they do quite a bit worse. And she’s shown that across a variety of domains. It’s very robust.

Katy Milkman: And the issue is just the lack of attention to obstacles so that you can actually make a plan for overcoming them.

Annie Duke: It’s that, and she suggests also that negative thinking activates you hormonally the same way that like a lion coming at you would, so it gets you to move and to act. Whereas positive thinking actually hormonally activates those same things that we get when we actually achieve our goals. And so then we sort of feel good, and we lay back, and we don’t have that same sort of stress reaction that gets us actually to move.

So she thinks that one of the things that negative thinking might be doing is to actually get your body into a chemical state where you would actually act.

Katy Milkman: That’s really interesting. So why is it that people don’t naturally think negatively enough? If it’s so powerful and important to think through obstacles and to have this sort of threat response that motivates you, why are we wired not to do that naturally and achieve more?

Annie Duke: I think it’s largely because imagining failure, essentially, we experience as failure, that you have the same hormonal response to imagining failure, at least a similar one, to actually experiencing the failure.

Katy Milkman: So it’s just super unpleasant.

Annie Duke: Yeah. I think it’s just super unpleasant. I love the way that Danny Kahneman talks about this need we have to update our self-image in a positive way. Dan Kahan would call it identity-protective cognitions. We’re trying to protect this idea of like, we’re smart and we’re great and we succeed and so on.

Katy Milkman: I was going to ask how this relates to overconfidence, and it seems like you’re making that connection and that they’re both really these sort of protective biases. We need to have a positive self-view, and that's why we’re overconfident and why we avoid negative thinking. Is that right?

Annie Duke: Yeah. I think that that’s exactly right. And if it is true that your body, at least, feels the same when you’re imagining failure as when you actually experience a failure, I think that to put really simply, it feels bad.

Katy Milkman: What advice do you have for listeners on how they can make better decisions knowing about the power of negative thinking?

Annie Duke: I think that one of the biggest problems that we have as decision-makers is that we’re having a street fight in our head. And that street fight is between present version of me, present version of Annie, and future version of Annie. And we know that what’s good for future version of Annie doesn't always feel good for present version of Annie. But that when we’re dealing with these kinds of intertemporal choices, that if our goal is actually to have the best outcomes in the long run, that we should be favoring future Annie. That’s the person who we’re really trying to protect, or we should be trying to protect more, but we actually do the opposite.

So the biggest advice that I have for people to improve their decision-making by using the power of negative thinking is to realize that imagining failure is not really a bad thing. It might cause you a little distress right now, but what it’s going to do is be very protective of the future version of you because the future version of you is really going to increase the chances that that future version of you succeeds.

What you know from Gary Klein’s work on pre-mortems where you imagine failure in advance, it’s a similar concept, is that when people are sort of generating ideas about what the obstacles are that might stand in the path of success, that when you do a pre-mortem, you actually generate about 30% more content, like ideas about what might stand in the way of success. And the more of that future landscape that you can identify, obviously the better you’re going to be able to navigate it, the better you're going to be able to prepare for it, the better you’re going to be able to avoid those obstacles or react to those obstacles more rationally when they happen to appear. And that’s all going to really increase the chances that you succeed.

So doing these exercises, like pre-mortems, where you imagine failure in advance of having it, you should be willing to make that trade. You should be willing to say, “I’m willing to feel a little bit bad right now, because this is going to be really, really protective of my future self.”

Katy Milkman: That was so interesting and so helpful. Annie, thank you very much for providing such awesome insights for our listeners and for me. I really enjoyed this.

Annie Duke: Oh, thank you.

Katy Milkman: Annie Duke is an author and decision strategist. You can read more about negative thinking in her book How to Decide. I have a link to it in the show notes and at

Risk management is one of the most important parts of financial planning, but there are some possible outcomes that are especially unpleasant to think about. One of these is cognitive decline as we age. On a recent episode of the Financial Decoder podcast titled “How Can You Prepare for the Perils of Aging?” Mark Riepe and his guests discuss how to take the right steps to protect your finances in the future. You can find it at or wherever you get your podcasts.

While optimism can be an important motivation to work towards challenging goals, rosy predictions can lead to overconfidence and make you more susceptible to failure when things don’t go according to plan. Pessimism, on the other hand, can be a drain on motivation, preventing you from sticking to your goals or even setting goals in the first place.

But reframing that pessimism as a planning tool can help you anticipate some of the obstacles you might encounter and raise your chances of success. The trick seems to be to balance both tendencies, to leverage a positive outlook, to make your efforts meaningful and manageable, and to leverage negative thinking to identify potential problems before they arise—the power of positive and negative thinking.

You’ve been listening to Choiceology, an original podcast from Charles Schwab. If you’ve enjoyed the show, we’d be really grateful if you’d leave us a review in Apple Podcasts. You can also follow us for free in your favorite podcasting app. And if you want more of the kinds of insights we bring you on Choiceology about how to improve your decisions, you can order my new book, How to Change: The Science of Getting From Where You Are to Where you Want to Be, or sign up for my monthly newsletter, Milkman Delivers, at

That’s it for this season of Choiceology. We’ll be back with new episodes in early 2022.

I’m Dr. Katy Milkman. Talk to you soon.

Speaker 6: For important disclosures, see the show notes or visit

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