Have you ever received your results from an exam and thought “wow the marker was really harsh”, dismissed advertisements on the dangers of drinking thinking it will never happen to you? Or even told a friend “yes, I can definitely do that” to then find out you actually can’t… If yes, it’s likely you were experiencing optimism bias.
Hundreds of journals social and neurological document evidence for the global phenomena of the unrealistic optimistic view we have of ourselves. We believe misfortune is most likely to happen to others than to ourselves.
Studies have found that people believe they will live longer and have a higher salary than the average, that their marriages will last longer, that they’re less likely to be the victim of crime. We even believe that our children will be better than average and that we are better drivers than most other people. The list is endless!
Statistically this is not possible… of course not everyone can be better than the average.
Being optimistic can make us feel better as we credit good work to our own abilities and are more motivated to accomplish the good opportunities we predict ahead. Furthermore, it protects our mental health by minimising anxiety and stress on worrying predicaments and undesired outcomes. For example, the optimism bias has been found to increase in elderly age perhaps as a coping strategy for the increasing health problems one may come by.
On the other hand, those unrealistically optimistic have higher expectations and therefore are less satisfied when receiving feedback. In addition, if we believe misfortune will not affect us, we may sacrifice our physical health by missing checkups or not preparing ourselves for possible natural disasters.
It seems if we were not unrealistic optimistic we could save ourselves from feeling such disappointment and be physically healthier. However, maybe we wouldn’t strive to do our bests, and our mental health may be impaired.
So why do we hold this bias?
- Due to our attribution bias whereby we attribute negative events to the situation whereas positive outcomes are viewed as from arising from our own behaviour and choices (Stevens & Jones, 1976). In other words we take credit for good events but blame bad ones on the situation.
- Sharot et al (2012) attributes it down to the chemicals in our brain such as high dopamine levels which can impair an individual’s ability to learn from negative outcomes, therefore never integrating one’s past failures or near misses into predictions of the future.
- On the other hand, Varki (2009) offers a philosophical point of view whereby an optimism bias is essential for human beings to survive – “with the ability to prospect comes the knowledge that death awaits each and every one of us… humans would be overcome by great fear that would essentially render us extinct. Hence, the optimism bias is adaptive and likely to have been evolutionarily preserved” (Chowdhury et al., 2013).
As research progresses and people are more aware of the bias, we should be able “to protect ourselves from unrealistic optimism, but at the same time remain hopeful” (Sharot, 2012).
To think about – Depressed individuals consistently show no optimism bias. Questioning whether those depressed are just more realistic..?