What Is the Optimism Bias?

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While we often like to think of ourselves as highly rational and logical, researchers have found that the human brain is sometimes too optimistic for its own good. If you were asked to estimate how likely you are to experience divorce, illness, job loss, or an accident, you are likely to underestimate the probability that such events will ever impact your life. This is because your brain has a built in optimism bias.

The phenomenon is also often referred to as "the illusion of invulnerability," "unrealistic optimism," and a "personal fable."

This bias leads us to believe that we are less likely to suffer from misfortune and more likely to attain success than reality would suggest. We believe that we will live longer than the average, that our children will be smarter than the average, and that we will be more successful in life than the average.

But by definition we can't all be above average.

The optimism bias is essentially a mistaken belief that our chances of experiencing negative events are lower and our chances of experiencing positive events are higher than those of our peers. This phenomenon was initially described by Weinstein (1980), who found that the majority of college students believed that their chances of developing a drinking problem or getting divorced was lower than that of other students.

At the same time, the majority of these students also believed that their chances of positive outcomes like owning their own home and living into old age were much higher than their peers.

The Impact of the Optimism Bias

The optimism bias doesn’t mean that we have an overly sunny outlook on our own lives.

It can also lead to poor decision-making, which can sometimes have disastrous results. People might skip their yearly physical, not wear their seatbelt, miss adding money to their emergency savings account, or fail to put on sunscreen because they mistakenly believe that they are less likely to get sick, get in an accident, need extra cash, or get skin cancer.

Cognitive neuroscientist Tali Sharot, author of The Optimism Bias: A Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brain, notes that this bias is widespread and can be seen in cultures all over the world. Sharot also suggests that while this optimism bias can at times lead to negative outcomes like foolishly engaging in risky behaviors or making poor choices about your health, it can also have its benefits. This optimism enhances well-being by creating a sense of anticipation about the future. If we expect good things to happen, we are more likely to be happy. This optimism, she also explained in a 2012 TED Talk, can act as a self-fulfilling prophecy.

By believing that we will be successful, people are in fact more likely to be successful.

Optimism also motivates us to pursue our goals. After all, if we didn't believe that we could achieve success, why would we even bother trying? Optimists are also more likely to take measures to protect their health such as exercising, taking vitamins, and following a nutritious diet.

So why are we so geared toward optimism? Experts believe that our brains may be evolutionarily wired for seeing the glass half-full.

Researchers have suggested various causes that lead to the optimism bias, including cognitive and motivational factors. When we are evaluating our risks, we compare our own situation to that of other people, but we are also egocentric. We focus on ourselves instead of realistically looking at how we compare to others.

But we are also highly motivated to be so optimistic. By believing that we are unlikely to fail and more likely to succeed, we have better self-esteem, lower stress levels, and better overall well-being.

Factors that make the optimism bias more likely to occur:

  • Infrequent events are more likely to be influenced by the optimism bias. People tend to think that they are less likely to be affected by things like hurricanes and floods simply because these are generally not every day events.
  • People experience the optimism bias more when they think the events are under the direct control and influence of the individual. As Sharot described in her TED Talk, it's not that people believe things will magically work out, they think that they have the skills and know-how to make it so.
  • The optimism bias is more likely to occur if the negative event is perceived as unlikely. If, for example, a person believes that getting skin cancer is very rare, he or she is more likely to be unrealistically optimistic about the risks.

Factors that decrease the occurrence of the optimism bias:

  • Research has also shown that people who are depressed or anxious are less likely to experience the optimism bias.
  • Actually experiencing certain events can reduce the optimism bias.
  • People are less likely to experience the optimism bias when they are comparing themselves to very close loved ones such as friends and family members.

While researchers have attempted to help people reduce the optimism bias, particularly to promote healthy behaviors and reduce risky behaviors, they have found that reducing or eliminating the bias is actually incredibly difficult.

In studies that involved attempts to reduce the optimism bias through actions such as educating participants about risk factors, encouraging volunteers to consider high-risk examples, and educating subjects and why they were at risk, researchers have found that these attempts led to little change and in some instances actually increased the optimism bias. For example, telling someone the risks of dying from a particular habit such as smoking can actually make them more likely to believe that they will not be negatively affected by the behavior.

Learn more about a few cognitive biases that might also influence your decisions and behaviors:

References

Boney-McCoy, S., Gibbons, F. X., & Gerrard, M. (1999). Self-esteem, compensatory self-enhancement, and the consideration of health risk. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 25, 954-965.

Chambers, J. R., & Windschitl, P. D. (2004). Biases in social comparative judgments: The role of nonmotivated factors in above-average and comparative optimism effects. Psychological Bulletin, 130, 813-838.

Klein, W. M. P. (n.d.). Optimism bias. National Cancer Institute. Retrieved from http://cancercontrol.cancer.gov/brp/constructs/optimistic_bias/

Sharot, T. (2012). The optimism bias. TED2012. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/tali_sharot_the_optimism_bias/transcript?language=en

Weinstein, N. D. (1980). Unrealistic optimism about future life events. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 39, 806-820.

Weinstein, N. D., & Klein, W. M. (1995). Resistance of personal risk perceptions to debiasing interventions. Health Psychology, 14(2), 132–140.

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