Are we all too optimistic?

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.

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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?

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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..?

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14 thoughts on “Are we all too optimistic?

  1. “Those depressed show no optimism bias …” I have been thinking about this for a short while after suffering through obvious depression for the first time. I was unrealistically realistic – expecting harm and disappointment from every corner and, as a result, not too motivated to introduce myself to any situation that would amount to the realisation of my predicted harm and failure. In fact, I argue that the depressed -solely based on my experience – tend towards pessimism bias. In other words, the more realistic one gets; the more depressed one becomes; the more pessimistic one is … in any order. It is realistic to expect that at any moment of any day, harm can arrive announced, – physical and not. Intrigues me because it’s not guaranteed either. I lool forward to read more about this !

    The optimism bias, as you’ve argued at some points, is necessary to be above average; though, it does not guarantee that you will be above average. What I find curious is that since realising this, it has been challenging to summon the wonderful-crucial success and peace ingredient.

    I really liked this post! Thanks. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I found very interesting everything you’ve said! I hope that what you say about depressed individuals holding a pessimism bias is true – it’s much too sad to think that a realistic view on life determines one to be depressed. It’s especially intriguing the sequence you mentioned of being more realistic in turn leading to depression and then pessimism – I would love to research this further as to what order this does develop.

      Yes, the optimism bias may be necessary to be above average but as you’ve said it does not guarantee it… therefore what’s the difference between those who are above average and those who hold the same bias but do not reach the same levels, all very interesting questions!

      If you’re finding it difficult to be optimistic (I hope I haven’t misunderstood what you said) maybe what would help is thinking about what the most important things in life are for you. For example, for me as cliché as it sounds, happiness is my number 1 priority, so I don’t actually try to stop my ‘optimism bias’ as it may be a contributing factor as to why I’m happy… Since there’s such consistent findings on it, clearly there is a reason as to why humans hold it!

      Thank you so much for reading my blog and commenting! 🙂

      Like

  2. Take a peek at “Thinking Fast & Slow” by Daniel Kahneman. The fundamental processes the human mind shows preferences to in avoiding cognitive deliberation are quite supportive of how humans operate.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. It’s the severe case of cognitive bias married with a mindset bred from childhood from parents who are megalomaniacs after leaving an oppressive regime. Blind leading the blind to half-truths and unexplored fallacies.

        Quite the tale!

        Like

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