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Optimism Bias

 

Explanations > Theories > Optimism Bias

Description | Research | Example | So What? | See also | References 

 

Description

Optimism bias is the tendency to believe that we are more likely to be successful, and otherwise experience good things, than actual probabilities predict. In particular, we tend to be more optimistic about our own chances than we do about other people.

Optimism bias can be assessed by asking people how likely they are to fail or experience something negative as compared with others. Many of us think they will face less risk and negative outcomes than others.

With regard to emotion, being optimistic makes us feel better for longer. When we believe we will benefit from a future event, we feel good about this as we think of ourselves in that situation and feel anticipatory pleasure. Even if the event does not happen, we only feel bad at that time and can easily move on to other positive thinking, such as when we tell ourselves 'It'll be better next time'.

There are evolutionary benefits for optimism. Optimistic people will try more things that those who are more cautious. Certainly, over-optimism can lead to at best a waste of time and at worst loss of life. Yet even this helps evolution of people who have the right amount of optimism. Overall, optimism and consequent experimentation leads to learning and that some people, at least, will make breakthroughs that would not be achieved if we were all more realistic. This spreads beyond humans as animals will also display optimism.

Optimism is affected by temperament, where some people are generally more optimistic than others. It is also affected by shorter-term mood, for example a person who is feeling depressed is less likely to be optimistic. Indeed, those who are depressed or who are generally in a negative frame of mind may tend towards an opposite, pessimistic bias. Optimism is also moderated by caution and the desire to avoid or reduce risks.

Selective memory tends to affect optimism when we recall past successes and positive events more easily than negative ones (which we may ignore or suppress).

Other factors that affect optimism include:

  • The degree of control a person believes they have.
  • The amount of support they person thinks they have from other people.
  • The successes the person has had in the past.
  • Where action is necessary and caution is not likely to be helpful.
  • Tendency towards self-confidence, arrogance and other thoughts that create cognitive self-bias.
  • The perceived probability and impact of the desired event.
  • The perceived probability and impact of negative events should the desired event not occur.
  • The extent to which we have told other people we will succeed.

Optimism is also encouraged within many cultures, where being positive receives more desirable feedback and being negative leads to criticism or less desirable feedback. In other words, we prefer people who are optimistic. Even when we know they are probably wrong, cheerful people who think the future will be good make us feel happier.

Research

Rosenhan and Messnick offered subjects a pack of cards that had an equal number of smiling faces and frowning faces. When asked to predict the likelihood of picking particular cards, the subjects over-estimated the chance of picking a smiling face.

Matheson et al (2008) taught starlings to press a red lever when they heard a short tone to get an immediate reward and a green lever when they heard a longer tone to get a delayed reward. They then played a medium length tone. The birds were optimistic in pressing the red lever for this.

Example

A young man decides to ask a young woman on a date. He believes she will agree without considering factors that may be important such as kindness, social skills and socio-economic status.

A person feels unwell but decides not to go the doctor as 'It will blow over in a few days'.

Most people believe they are above average in factors such as intelligence, kindness, etc.

So What?

Using it

Be enthusiastic when seeking to persuade others. Give them reason to be optimistic. Ignore or downplay any factors that could make them less positive. Praise agreement, optimism and 'can-do' attitudes.

Defending

When you feel optimistic, pause and force yourself to rationally consider both positive and negative possibilities. Assess risks in a balanced way and determine what actions would be needed to reduce their probability or impact.

See also

Overconfidence Barrier, Gambler's Fallacy, Valence Effect, Attribution Theory, Selective Perception

References

Matheson, S.M., Asher, L. and Bateson, M. (2008). Larger, enriched cages are associated with ‘optimistic’ response biases in captive European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) Applied Animal Behavioral Science, 109, 374-383.

Rosenhan, D.L. and Messick, S. (1966). Affect and expectation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 3, 38-44.

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

 

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