Example Scenario: PersonA wants to do something, but is told they can't. They're persistent, and they quiet down eventually, but then they find just the slightest justification and jump back into hours-long pleading again as if the past conversations never happened.

I could say that PersonA is a wishful thinker, but "wishful thinking" doesn't necessarily have a negative connotation. PersonA in this case is a wishful thinker to the point of lunacy. Is there a single word or phrase that accurately describes this so that even when heard out-of-context it would be understandable? Optimally it'd be workplace-appropriate, but it's fine if it's not.

  • 5
    I feel like the example here doesn’t help the question. The story highlights PersonA’s stubbornness, refusal to listen to advice, and need for external validation more than it does their optimism.
    – KRyan
    Aug 22, 2016 at 4:22
  • Thanks for pointing that out @KRyan. I've revised the question to improve the example -- let me know if there's anything I missed!
    – Drew
    Aug 22, 2016 at 13:22

13 Answers 13


A common phrase that describes this sort of behavior/thinking is delusional optimism, and I found several examples of it used in a business context. Here's one:

When forecasting the outcomes of risky projects, executives all too easily fall victim to what psychologists call the planning fallacy. In its grip, managers make decisions based on delusional optimism rather than on a rational weighting of gains, losses, and probabilities. They overestimate benefits and underestimate costs. They spin scenarios of success while overlooking the potential for mistakes and miscalculations. As a result, managers pursue initiatives that are unlikely to come in on budget or on time—or to ever deliver the expected returns.

That same article quoted from also uses the term overoptimism, but I think delusional optimism has more "punch."

[Source: Harvard Business Review, July 2003, "Delusions of Success: How Optimism Undermines Executives’ Decisions" by Dan Lovallo and Daniel Kahneman]


Consider the word quixotic.

It suggests wishful thinking to the point of lunacy in pursuit of one's ideals.

The novel Don Quixote is about an old man who decides to become a knight even though the days of chivalry had ended long ago. Despite the impracticality of the notion and a great deal of failure and pain, he still continues to attempt to pursue knighthood (and continues to fail over and over again).

The only catch is that this word is typically only applied to a person pursuing a noble but impractical or impossible cause, so you would not typically use this word to describe a persistent bank robber. Be sure to take the context into account when deciding if this word is right for your situation.

  • Yes great example. Fighting so fervently about something that is not relevant any longer is not only a waste of time. It risks looking rather silly and/or sad too. Aug 22, 2016 at 13:22
  • Doesn't the term also carry connotations of tangible negative consequences? (e.g. physical injury, financial ruin, social ostracism, etc)
    – Jeremy
    Aug 23, 2016 at 13:28

The idiomatic phrase grasping at straws may convey the concept

  1. trying to find some way to succeed when nothing you choose is likely to work

Jerry, grasping at straws, searched the backup tapes from last week, looking for the missing files.

  1. trying to find reasons to feel hopeful about a bad situation

She thinks he might still be interested because he calls her now and then but I think she's clutching at straws.

Cambridge Dictionary of American Idioms cited at thefreedictionary.com

The term flail is also sometimes used

To make energetic but aimless or or ineffectual efforts:

As the end of law school approached, Hill flailed briefly in numerous professional directions

American Heritage

Supplement: Along the lines of the good answer by @pyobum, the phrase cockeyed optimist is sometimes encountered. Merriam-Websters Learners' Dictionary offers this definition of cockeyed

crazy or foolish

Where did you get those cockeyed ideas?

She is full of cockeyed optimism.

The term is the title of a featured song in the musical South Pacific

  • 5
    I don't think this is a good fit, "grasping at straws" conveys despair rather than optimism.
    – Morgen
    Aug 22, 2016 at 16:29
  • Ditto for "flailing". Aug 22, 2016 at 19:33
  • Speaking as someone who is frequently grasping at straws and flailing about, I can definitely say I do not feel optimistic when doing so.
    – barbecue
    Aug 23, 2016 at 1:19

Delusional (both definitions from Merriam-Webster):

"A persistent false psychotic belief regarding the self or persons or objects outside the self that is maintained despite indisputable evidence to the contrary; also : the abnormal state marked by such beliefs"

[in] Denial:

2: "refusal to admit the truth or reality (as of a statement or charge) (2) : assertion that an allegation is false"

6: "a psychological defense mechanism in which confrontation with a personal problem or with reality is avoided by denying the existence of the problem or reality"

"in denial" : "refusing to admit the truth or reality of something unpleasant"

  • “Delusional” has already been suggested (twice, if you count pyobum’s answer). And the question has an aspect of persistent focus that, I believe, is missing from “in denial.”  For example, if there are clear signs that my employer is going out of business (stock price is plummeting; executives are being fired and/or arrested), but I just go about my life as usual, coming to work as usual (and not looking for a new job), I’m in denial.  But that doesn’t match the conditions of the question. Aug 22, 2016 at 19:48
  • Delusional has been suggested, but not explained adequately in my opinion. Both delusional and "in denial" are the most succint words that describe a general, unfortunately common, phenomenon where one's aspirations/dreams of society differ from the more stark, objective reality. This theme has been well explored in English literature (late Henry James, Gatsby, King Lear). You're definition of in denial actually perfectly matches the conditions of the question. PersonA wants to do something, ignores the concrete evidence that it cannot be done, and is still searching in vain.
    – Rdesmond
    Aug 22, 2016 at 21:03
  • The definitions I used were the ones most relevant to the question (which were not listed yet). Moreover, while "delusional optimism" may fit, it is rather esoteric. It's much easier to imagine this conversation between friends at a bar: "Yeah PersonA wants to do this but it will violate copyright laws, and cost the company millions." "Haven't you told him/her about it?" "Yeah several times, but s/he won't listen. S/He's delusional". Beautifully concise.
    – Rdesmond
    Aug 22, 2016 at 21:16

Possibly relevant:

MW: Monomaniacal

"excessive concentration on a single object or idea"

  • I thought of this one too. Do note, though, that it can be taken to imply mental illness as well, and so could be viewed as insulting. Whether or not this is what you want to do is another question. Aug 22, 2016 at 18:22
  • @MichaelSeifert It's true that it's origin is related to psychology but it is archaic. It's similar in my mind to terms like hysterical, neurotic, melancholy etc. Chances are if someone understands the term (and they haven't traveled in time from the 1800s) they will likely realize that you aren't saying that the person is actually suffering from a diagnosis that hasn't been used in psychology in more than 100 years.
    – JimmyJames
    Aug 22, 2016 at 18:52

Like a dog with a bone:


    Stubborn; persistent; relentless; dogged

The Free Dictionary:

    to refuse to stop thinking about or talking about a subject
    On the subject of fathers’ rights, he’s like a dog with a bone. 
  • 3
    This answer has no connotation of an optimist, or more specifically of someone who searches for evidence that his plan will succeed and ignores evidence that it will fail.
    – Beta
    Aug 22, 2016 at 1:30
  • 1
    I like this answer because it sounds like the OP’s character keeps asking the same thing with different wording rather than exploring different approaches.
    – JDługosz
    Aug 22, 2016 at 7:33

"Mad hope" is an expression for irrational hope in the face of massive evidence to the contrary. See this Google books search.


Consider Pollyanna or Pollyannaish, defined as follows by "Dictionary.com Unabridged:"

(often lowercase). unreasonably or illogically optimistic: some pollyanna notions about world peace.

  • The question has an aspect of persistent focus (repeatedly proposing the same idea). ISTM that your answer doesn’t cover that. Aug 22, 2016 at 19:54
  • @Scott Perhaps not, but neither does the accepted answer.
    – Casey
    Aug 23, 2016 at 0:07

You could describe Person A as having an idée fixe. From Wikipedia:

An idée fixe is a preoccupation of mind believed to be firmly resistant to any attempt to modify it, a fixation.

As a less-common French phrase, it may be viewed as slightly pretentious in some circles.


I'll throw these on the pile:

  • They're dreaming
  • They're delusional
  • They're hoping in vain
  • They're living in fairyland
  • They believe in fairytales
  • May I add to Steve's list: Aug 22, 2016 at 2:05
  • 1
    They are living in "cloud cuckoo land". Aug 22, 2016 at 2:08
  • 3
    I'd vote for one or two of these. But not when mixed with the rest of these. Creating a list is not the best response to a word request. Pick what you think is the best. Aug 22, 2016 at 2:36
  • @PeterPoint: The question is asking about a person who resists taking “No” for an answer and, as a result of a failure to understand the political reality that a final decision has been made, persists in a mistaken, futile hope that he still has a chance to prevail.   «Living in "cloud cuckoo land"» is a couple of notches too pejorative for that. Aug 22, 2016 at 19:47

A bit out of place, but naïve may be what you're looking for, especially for generally describing them.


I think I would use the word lazy (with possibly a seasoning of ignorant - but that is just another kind of laziness).

If they had something more useful to do, they could be doing that, instead. If they understood why they can't do whatever, they would be interested in something else. But understanding how things work and why things are like they are takes effort (as does overcoming obstacles that can be overcome).

But you have to perceive or perhaps encounter the obstacles before you can avoid them.

So... that persistence could instead be a good thing, if they just put some real effort and thought into it. (And I recognize that some people might object that persistence means that the person cannot be lazy - but, in fact, all people are persistent in some sense. This is a part of human nature, and a part of being alive.)

That said, quite likely they are being this way because of something else that they were told. So... who told them that?


I'm by no means an english speaking native, but a more objective wording of what this thing you describe could be : a discrepancy of perception.

What it means is that there is a difference how different people interpret a piece of communication or a situation. What you want to convey is probably that one person does not interpret a message or a situation the same way you do or at least not the same way you expect / want them to.


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