The phrase wishful thinking designates thinking in which one, consciously or unconsciously, interprets facts as one would like them to be rather than as they really are.
The earliest occurrence of the phrase wishful thinking that I have found is from Leading Features of July Magazines, published in the New York Tribune (New York City, New York) of Saturday 26th June 1915—the following is the review of one of the articles published in Scribner’s Magazine (New York: Scribner’s Sons) of July 1915:
A paper on “Wishful Thinking,” by Dr. Pearce Bailey, repays reading. It gives a specialist’s explanation of the processes of the New Thought and allied movements, among them Christian Science. “Autistic thinking,” Dr. Bailey calls it, and defines it as follows: “To think autistically is to let thoughts be smuggled past the censor of critical approval by our natural inclinations to turn toward what pleases us and away from what does not, so that our desires and fears, without paying duty, get the stamp of intellectuality.”
What is rather odd in the above-quoted review is that the article it refers to is not titled Wishful Thinking, but The Wishful Self, and that Pearce Bailey does not even use the phrase wishful thinking: he uses wish-thinking synonymously with autistic thinking. Perhaps those facts indicate that the phrase wishful thinking was already in usage.
The second-earliest occurrence of the phrase wishful thinking that I have found is from the transcript of a lecture advocating U.S. entry into the First World War, given on Wednesday 28th February 1917 at Stanford University, California, by its President, Ray Lyman Wilbur (1875-1949)—transcript published in the San Francisco Examiner (San Francisco, California) of Thursday 1st March 1917:
As a nation we can only be sovereign if we respect ourselves. Are we now a self-respecting nation, or are we merely a smug conglomeration of soft and materially prosperous peoples, too timid to act like men, and too easily soothed and numbed by the soporific chatterings of those who do “wishful thinking” and see the world only as they would like to see it and not as it is.
The phrase wishful thinker designates a person who, consciously or unconsciously, interprets facts as he or she would like them to be rather than as they really are.
The earliest occurrence of the phrase wishful thinker that I have found is from Wishful Waiting—A Diagnosis, in which the U.S. psychiatrist Stewart Paton (1865-1942) advocated U.S. entry into the First World War, published in the New York Tribune (New York City, New York) of Thursday 8th March 1917:
As a nation we have made little preparation either to defend our rights or prepare our minds for dealing successfully with any great vital issue. Our vision is clouded with a fog of sentiment and we have begun to form the habits of wishful thinking and wishful waiting. We drift with every stream of sentiment and dream until rudely awakened by the shock of some disaster. […]
In spite of the contradictory evidence furnished by our dreams history will repeat itself in this country. The vision of a splendid isolation created for us by wishful thinkers will disappear. We should prepare to defend our heritage, not handed on to us by the critics of Washington nor the pacifists who implored Lincoln “not to drag the country into war,” but by the men who were at Valley Forge and Gettysburg. We shall have a hard struggle to resist the insidious and varied temptations of wishful thinking. Have we, the self-appointed guardians of democracy, the courage and intelligence to face the present and adjust life to meet not theories but conditions?
The second-earliest occurrence of the phrase wishful thinker that I have found is from Whiting’s Column, by Edward Elwell Whiting (1875-1956), published in The Boston Herald (Boston, Massachusetts) of Monday 23rd October 1922:
There is plenty of party consciousness in Massachusetts; but is a party consciousness which is perhaps better defined as a party subconsciousness. It follows the comforting leadership of Coue *:
Day by day
In every way
We are growing a little better.
Both parties are filled with wishful thinkers.
* This refers to Émile Coué (1857-1926), a French pharmacist who, in 1920, introduced a method of psychotherapy characterised by frequent repetition of the formula, “Every day, and in every way, I am becoming better and better”.