Optimism Bias: Why We Believe Things Are Good Even When They Are Not

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 thing.

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 to grow.

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 more.

“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.”