Wednesday, 30 May 2012

The optimism bias

Last week, we learned that we are most likely more creative than we think and that all that prevents us from really doing something creative is often our lack of confidence. To put it differently, we ought to be more optimistic with respect to our own abilities and skills. In a previous post, we reported that optimism is beneficial for our health. But what IS optimism, and what are its benefits and pitfalls?

In her TED Talk, Tali Sharot from University College London defines optimism as overestimating the likelihood of good experiences and underestimating the likelihood of bad experiences. Healthy individuals are usually subject to the optimism bias, meaning that we are more optimistic about ourselves, relatives and friends than we are about strangers and that this optimism does often not reflect reality. For example, most of us will say that they are better at driving a car than average. Optimism bias has been observed in many countries.

Some people say the secret to happiness is low expectations and thus low optimism because then you are not disappointed when something goes wrong, but always pleasantly surprised when everything works out alright. Tali Sharot cites research that proves this idea wrong: She says that people with high expectations always feel better for three reasons. 1) When people with high expectations succeed, they attribute it to their own traits, and when they fail, they attribute it to the external circumstances. People with low expectations attribute the other way round. 2) Anticipation makes us happy. 3) Optimism makes you try harder and leads to success. And, as we learned before: Optimism is beneficial for health.

What is problematic about the optimism bias is that it makes it difficult to adjust false beliefs. These can be changed, but only if the change is for the better. If it is for the worse, our belief hardly changes.

Thus, the optimism bias has advantages and disadvantages. What can we do in order to benefit from the advantages without falling into the pitfalls? Tali Sharot suggests to simply become aware of the bias. It does not make it go away, but is allows for coming up with plans and rules to protect ourselves from the negative outcomes of unrealistic optimism while remaining hopeful.

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