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Sometimes people start a sentence with I like to think that.

I like to think that my business plan will attract investors.

  • Are they being literal? In other words, are they stating that they like something so they believe it? If so, do you think these speakers know that they are giving the listener a reason to distrust them?

  • Or, are they employing an idiom that means I believe.

  • Or, (after seeing Nick's answer, I am adding this third possibility) that people are employing an idiom that means I hope.

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I like to think that the moon is there even if I am not looking at it. —Albert Einstein –  kiamlaluno Feb 6 '11 at 7:43
    
Isn't the phrase generally " I'd like to think that..."? I think it is much clearer that way. –  Kosmonaut Feb 8 '11 at 14:18
    
At various times it might be any of the possibilities listed. My vote goes for 'hope' more often than not, with 'Believe' a runner up. –  mickeyf Feb 8 '11 at 15:11

4 Answers 4

I like to think introduces a pleasant or hopeful wish, but with some uncertainty.

I like to think that people are mostly good.
I like to think that I'm good in bed, but how should I know?

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Thanks. This is like a poll. I would count your answer as saying that people are being literal and uncertain of the fact being stated. –  broiyan Feb 6 '11 at 8:11
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@broiyan: I am not sure Nick meant that when people say I like to think they are being literal. –  kiamlaluno Feb 6 '11 at 8:42
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I think it's mostly idiomatic. When someone says "I like to think that...", they're not intending to say "I get pleasure out of this thought", but they probably do get pleasure out of that thought. I would say that that (unintentional?) meaning is secondary to the one in my answer, though. –  Nick Feb 6 '11 at 9:18
    
In your example: I like to think that I'm good in bed, but how should I know? The uncertainty here is explicit. In your other example: I like to think that people are mostly good. There is no explicit uncertainty and perhaps not even implied uncertainty when spoken by most of the people who would utter such a sentence, in my opinion. Are you saying uncertainty is always present? –  broiyan Aug 26 '11 at 12:15
    
@broiyan: I think some uncertainty is always implied, even if it's not very much. I'd say that hopefulness is always implied, and that hope implies doubt. –  Nick Aug 26 '11 at 19:12

I like to think that is actually used literally most of the time. People like to think a certain thought, which they may actually believe (though not as a result of liking it). On the other hand, they may simply be optimistic or hopeful about a thought, yet realize that there may be evidence to the contrary. Still, the thought is nice to think.

In the following examples, the speaker likes the thought and most likely truly believes it too.

I like to think that my business plan will attract investors.

I like to think I'm a good person.

I like to think I can always count on my friends.

If the speaker adds context to the contrary of their I like to think that statement, then the speaker likes to think the thought (because it's nice and/or feels good) and generally believes it, but doesn't necessarily believe it all the time or believes that there are exceptions to the thought. This is the case in the following examples.

I like to think that I'm a good person, but I have my faults.

I like to think that I'm fit, but I could exercise more.

I like to think that I'm attractive, but I guess beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

I would like to think has a very different meaning, in that the speaker doesn't actually think the thought, but acknowledges that it would be a nice thought if he actually believed it to be true (which he doesn't).

I'd like to think that I'm good at math (but I'm really not).

I would like to think that I could take a day off and the team would be able to finish the project without me (but I don't actually think they could).

I'd like to think that all people are always well-intentioned (but too much evidence contradicts such a nice thought that I would simply be naive to believe it).

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(taking the phrase as "I'd like to think X...")

I don't think that the literal meaning is "I like something so I believe it." and either way there's no matter of distrust.

The literal meaning would more likely be "I would enjoy having the thought X, but there might be evidence that contradicts the thought".

What a statement "I'd like to believe X" is intended to mean is that "I really hope X, there might be some evidence to the contrary but I'm sticking with my hope". So it is somewhat metaphorical/an understatement.

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If preferences and not the truth of the matter are the basis of a belief then how can that not be a basis for mistrust? –  broiyan May 14 '11 at 12:42
    
@broiyan: Mistrust or distrust seem so strong to me, as though they expect some intentional equivocation on the speaker. If some one says '"I'd like to believe X", the speaker believes X but has some doubts, so you the the listener may not be 100% sure of X from the speaker. If you call that 'distrust' then I'd hope you are distrusting X rather than the speaker. –  Mitch May 14 '11 at 16:39
    
Mitch: the point is taken but if "I like to think that" is literal and they follow through with belief it may be indicative of a pattern. Other statements consistent with that pattern might not always be prefaced with the "I like to think that" caveat and so I would be wary. –  broiyan May 23 '11 at 11:11
    
@broiyan: indicative of what pattern? Wary of what? –  Mitch May 23 '11 at 12:07
    
Mitch: it may be but not always be indicative of a pattern of thinking: I like X and so I will quite literally believe X through self-deception or some other means. I would be more wary of the veracity of statements made by such a person. –  broiyan Aug 1 '11 at 6:54

Frequently the "I like to think" is actually dropping some conditional (or perhaps it is added in certain dialects?), such as would. At any rate the "like to think part" is operating on some inability to actually think that way, hence the phrase indicates not a literal usage. There is a functional usage, but not in the sense that "I enjoy thinking" would have.

I would like to believe in the goodness of mankind. However, there is so much contradictory evidence when one goes through the history books.

The conditional is signalling that they want to hold a belief, but that there is some kind of barrier or burden of proof that they have difficulty overcoming.

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FWIW: I have heard the phrase used in the "I believe" sense, with no hint of uncertainty. –  broiyan Apr 25 '11 at 0:23

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