The Optimism Bias

It appears that humans have an optimism bias. Perhaps it can help you to achieve your maximum “optimistic” impact?

Tali Sharot is a neuroscientist faculty member of the Department of Cognitive, Perceptual, and Brain Sciences at University College London.  She says (4.4) that 80% of us have what is known as an “optimism bias”. The optimism bias occurs when we overestimate the likelihood of good events occurring in our lives and underestimate the likelihood of bad events occurring in our lives. We overestimate our longevity and job prospects and we underestimate the likelihood of ending up in a car accident or being diagnosed with cancer. In summary, she says, that we are more optimistic than realistic but we are oblivious to it. In the Western world we know that the divorce rate is approximately 40%, however, when you ask newly married couples about the likelihood of them getting divorced they will tell you that the likelihood is 0%. Sharot says that the research also shows that 75% of us tend to be  optimistic about our own lives and the lives of our families but only 30% of us are optimistic about the lives of other people. 

In Sharot’s one of experiments she asked people to rank themselves in how well they get along with others, their driving skills, how attractive they are and how modest they are. Most people rank themselves as above average in all of these abilities. This is obviously statistically impossible because “most people cannot be above average”. The optimism bias has been observed in many countries and cultures, across all ages, in both men and women and therefore appears to be a human trait. Sharot wanted to answer the question, is it good for us to have this optimism bias? Some people say that it is not good for us because they feel that the secret to happiness is low expectations. She thinks that the logic is that if we don’t expect good things to happen then we won’t be disappointed in the event that they don’t happen but we will be pleasantly surprised if they do happen. Sharot says that this theory is wrong for three reasons. 

1. Interpretation matters. Regardless of whether people succeed or fail, people with high expectations always feel better. The reason is that the way we feel when something good or bad happens is more dependent on how we interpret that event  than the event itself (note that this perception issue is an ongoing theme throughout this chapter). She says that the research indicates that people with high expectations that succeed attribute their success to their personal positive traits. In the event that these people fail they don’t think t was because they were somehow deficient, rather they blame it on some other factor that was out of their control. Sharot  says that people with low expectations do the opposite. When they failed it was because they were deficient. When they succeeded it was because they got lucky. Therefore they felt worse. 

2. Anticipation makes us happy – regardless of the outcome. Sharot cites research from behavioral economist, George Lowenstein, who conducted experiments on students where he asked them to imagine getting a passionate kiss from a favorite celebrity. He asked them how much they would be prepared to pay for a kiss from this celebrity if the kiss was delivered immediately or in three hours, 24 hours, three days, one year or 10 years. The students said that they would pay the most for a kiss in three days. Why would they want to wait? They felt that getting the kiss now would mean that this potentially great experience would be all over immediately. The other hand, if they waited for three days they could spend three days enjoying the anticipation. This time allowed the them to imagine where it was going to happen and how it will happen and anything else that would potentially make this a great experience. 

Sharot reasons that this is also why the research shows that people prefer Friday to Sunday. Friday’s a day a work day and Sunday is a day off so it may be reasonable to think that most people prefer Sunday but they don’t. It’s not because people like to be at work. When you ask people to rank their favorite days of the week Saturday comes in first, Friday second and Sunday comes in third. Sharot reasons that people prefer Friday because it provides anticipation for whatever is planned for the weekend and that, on Sunday, the only thing available to anticipate is the work week. 

Optimists expect more good things in the future and that optimism enhances their well-being. Sharot  says that, people that do not have the optimism bias are slightly depressed. People that have mild depression do not have a bias when they look into the future and are more realistic than healthy individuals. People suffering from severe depression have a pessimistic bias and expect the future to be worse than the reality. Therefore, Sharot concludes that optimism changes “subjective” reality – the way we anticipate the world to be changes the way we see it. But it also changes “objective” reality in the sense that it acts as a self-fulfilling prophecy and leads to the third reason (below) that lowering your expectations will not make you happy. 

3. Optimism makes you try harder. Sharot says that research has shown that optimism is not only related to success, it leads to success. One of the benefits of optimism is health. If we expect the future to be bright then stress and anxiety are reduced.

An interesting question is how do we maintain optimism in the face of reality? Or to put it another way, why don’t we lower our expectations when our expectations are not met? In order to answer this question Sharot conducted an experiment where she asked people to anticipate the likelihood of various bad events in their lives. For example, one of the questions was, what is your likelihood of suffering from cancer? Then, after they answered, she told these people the actual statistical probability that somebody with their profile will suffer from cancer. The average happens to be 30%. Then, after giving them this information, she asked the same question again to see if their answer would be different and changed their estimation of the future. The interesting result was that people did in fact change their view – but only when the new information indicated that the future would be better than they thought. Negative information had a much smaller impact on their answer than positive information. In order to understand this Sharot says that there is research where volunteers were put into an MRI in order to see how the brain responded in these situations and the results were consistent with the research. The parts of the brain that responded to positive information about our future tend to respond strongly and the part of our brain that responds to negative information about our future tended to have a much smaller response.

Sharot cautions that there may be a downside to overoptimistic behavior because it can lead to problems such as financial collapse, faulty planning. It is the reason that the cost and duration of projects is often underestimated.

Interestingly, Sharot also says that becoming aware of the optimism bias does not diminish it. She says that, it’s like a visual illusion where understanding the visual illusion does not make the illusion go away. 

One of the important conclusions that I draw from this research is that, if we believe that something can be achieved (an optimism bias) we’re more likely to pursue it. If we think that something cannot be achieved we’re less likely to pursue it. Nature has built us in a way that gives us a slightly skewed (optimistic) projection of the future. It’s as if nature wants us to succeed.

Next article in this series: “Mindfulness”

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