Ever met someone so optimistic you think they are deluded?
It turns out most of us are unrealistically optimistic – and that can be a good
Why are we so optimistic as humans, even in the face of hard
facts to the contrary?
Optimism is the engine that helps us plan ahead and endure
hard work for a future reward, and to keep on going when we hit setbacks.
It is what got humans through evolution, helping us leave
the cave, go after the woolly mammoth, or try sowing seeds and waiting for them
But you’d think that these days, with all our nationality
and logic, and all our access to accurate data and forecasts, we’d be more
realistic in our thinking. It turns out, nearly all of us have a bias towards
optimism. In other words, we’re often quite deluded.
What is optimism bias?
Optimism bias is a tendency towards optimism. It’s a
spectrum, and most of us fall somewhere along the spectrum from “dubiously
hopeful” to “blinded by the light”.
Neuroscientist, Tali Sharot, author of Optimism Bias,
says our brains are hardwired to look on the bright side.
“We like to think of ourselves as rational creatures. We
watch our backs, weigh the odds, pack an umbrella. But both neuroscience and social science
suggest that we are more optimistic than realistic. On average, we expect
things to turn out better than they wind up being.” Says Sharot.
She says people underestimate their chance of problems like
divorce, job loss or cancer, and overestimate the likelihood their child is
gifted. We even overestimate our likely life span – sometimes by 20 years or
“When it comes to predicting what will happen to us
tomorrow, next week, or fifty years from now, we overestimate the likelihood of
positive events, and underestimate the likelihood of negative events.”
On the flipside, people tend to underestimate how long a
project will take to complete and how much it will cost.
Optimism bias exists in every culture and age group. Studies
consistently report that a large majority of the population (up to 80 percent)
have an optimism bias.
Our optimism is irrational
Sharot says that even when we are pessimistic about the
state of the world, we remain optimistic about our own little worlds.
For example, we might have felt pessimistic about the covid
stats, but we were optimistic about the chances of our family staying safe.
“It seems that our brain possesses the philosopher’s stone
that enables us to turn lead into gold and helps us bounce back to normal
levels of wellbeing,” says Sharot.
It’s a two-edged sword. While optimism bias might stop us
from taking precautions, such as wearing a mask or applying sunscreen, it does
help us keep on going even when things are tough.
Researchers studying heart disease patients found that
optimists were more likely than non-optimistic patients to take vitamins, eat
low-fat diets and exercise, thereby reducing their overall coronary risk.
Without optimism, we’d be depressed
Sharot says the only people who are relatively accurate when
predicting future events are people with mild depression.
Healthy people expect the future to be slightly better than
it ends up being. People with severe depression expect things to be worse than
they end up being. People with mild depression “see the world as it is.”
So should we stay optimistic?
If our optimism is irrational, and goes against logic and
facts, should we still go along with believing things will be ok?
Optimistic people live longer, save more and get more
promotions at work. They might not be “right”, but they seem to be happy.
Sharot suggests striking a balance: “to believe we will stay
healthy, but get medical insurance anyway; to be certain the sun will shine,
but grab an umbrella on our way out – just in case.”