Optimism can be one’s biggest strength. It acts as a self-fulfilling prophecy, helps us take risks, learn more & succeed, reduces stress & anxiety, elevates our mood and happiness, reduces the risk of coronary heart disease/death & thus improves health and wellbeing, just to name a few benefits. (“The Optimism Bias: Imagining A Positive Future”, n.d.) Optimism has an evolutionary purpose, and is behind all the advancement in our lives, from early cave men to the present 21st century. However, unrealistic optimism/optimism bias/an illusion of invulnerability could pose a danger.
Optimism bias or the Illusion of Invulnerability refers to overestimating likelihood of positive future events in our life and underestimating the likelihood of negative life events.
How do you see your future? Do you see yourself having stable/better health, finances, and relationships than the present time? Or you see yourself meeting with an accident & losing a limb? Or contracting Covid/any debilitating illness? A bad relationship-breakup or divorce? Job loss? Missing the most important appointment/ meeting of your life? Failure of your start up? Or worse, death? I would not anticipate any of such things happening to me. Nonetheless, who expected a few nanometers sized corona virus to cause a pandemic, bringing millions of lives to halt and revolutionize the world? What do we all think our lifespan is? Today, I feel miserable, when some people are so casual and complacent about their precautionary measures against COVID.
Tali Sharot, a leading expert in optimism bias & cognitive neuroscience pointed out that human beings are more optimists than realists, & that our brains are engineered & wired that way, as optimistically biased people. (Sharot, 2012) Yes, we can be collectively pessimistic about the state of affairs (maybe currently due to a pandemic, environmental mishaps & emergencies, innumerable protests & clashes, poor governance, questionable leaderships & democracies etc.), but as individuals, we tend to be remarkably optimistic about our private lives and success of our own endeavors. It exists irrespective of differences in race, gender, age etc. (Gillespie, 2019) Fun fact: Optimism bias is unaffected by the presence of opposing evidence or change. (Szostek, 2018)
Psychology of Optimism Bias:
To experience conscious mental time travel (moving back & forth in time/picturing scenarios), Tali Sharot explained that during evolution, when human beings came to an understanding of death as inevitable, irrational/unrealistic optimism had to arise alongside. (“The Optimism Bias: Imagining A Positive Future”, n.d.) It is said that our brain naturally enables us to imagine our future scenarios a lot more than recalling flashbacks of our past. We also muse on positive future events & results more than the negative ones (in which case we ponder on the ways they can be circumvented) We tend to see the silver lining of our negative outcomes and experiences, & perceive failures as stepping stones of success, that ultimately lead us to fulfilling our goals. (Sharot, 2012) Leon Festinger, a social psychologist suggested that we try to decrease the tension that develops due to the task of evaluating and deciding between two suitable options that are on par. Hence, irrespective of the outcome of our decision, in retrospect, we interpret our final decision in a positive way & value it more than the discarded option, in order ease tension & bring satisfaction. Tali Sharot (2012) established that, “expectations simply transform the way we perceive the world without altering reality itself”.
Illusion of invulnerability increases with unlikely events (example: being robbed, arrested, death etc.), infrequent events (example: natural disasters), with uncertainty & also due to the optimism of others (when added to optimism bias). (Szostek, 2018) (Cherry, 2020) Unrealistic optimism also depends on the personal risk perception (degree/ extent to which you perceive a situation as risky). It tells us whether people would be on guard or not. (Example: Smoking Behaviour)
Motivational explanation/ the WHY of self-supporting (serving) biases: (Coelho, 2020)
- To increase/ preserve one’s self-esteem
Cognitive explanation / the HOW of unrealistic optimism comprises of:
- Illusion of control (situations/events must be perceived as controllable for optimism bias to occur)
- Extreme probability biases [“people slightly overestimate small risks (i.e., unrealistic pessimism) and moderately underestimate large ones (i.e., unrealistic optimism)”]
- Unfamiliarity with the event/ no past experiences
Hence, it is said that a level of emotional investment/commitment coupled with perception of control of the event are essential for optimism bias to arise. (Coelho, 2020)
Optimism bias is associated with the functions of hippocampus, caudate nucleus & communication of frontal cortex with sub cortical regions of our brain. Higher activity in amygdala & rostral anterior cingulate cortex (rACC) is also implicated in enhanced optimism. (FMRIs) Similarly, abnormal activity in those regions is implicated in people suffering from depression, who tend to be pessimistically biased. (Overestimating negative events) (Sharot, 2012)
Consequences of Optimism Bias (Coelho, 2020)
In many cases, optimism bias is very useful.
- It is a good predictor of physical health & wellbeing, positive health behaviours in at-risk patients, reduced mortality risk in cancer patients, lowers stress in patients with various illnesses.
- It is related to increased motivation, persistence, performance, and success eventually.
- It could be adaptive in nature; helps seek novel experiences & new things.
However, one cannot turn a blind-eye to the downsides of this cognitive bias. Unrealistic optimism can lead to the following:
- Engaging in risky/ harmful behaviours: Optimism bias hinders a person from identifying the objective risks of certain events, also caused by temporal discounting (overvaluing present over future-pleasure over safety)
Example: Overspending, over/unhealthy eating, binge-drinking, drink and driving/ rash-driving, breaking traffic rules/societal norms, trying out stunts without professional support, smoking, unprotected sex etc.
- Poor decision making & it’s after effects
Example: Lack of precautionary behaviours such as social distancing, hand-washing, medical check-ups, lack of insurances, negative health behaviours, economic decision making, entrepreneural activity, business & start-up decisions, poor policy making etc.
For example, unrealistic optimism has been implicated as one of the major causes in the global financial crisis in 2008 (Sharot, 2011)
What is the way out?
1. Knowledge of our biases, & subsequent awareness & recognition of biases in the process of our decision making. (Sharot, 2012)
- Protecting ourselves by behavioural changes, i.e., being cautious, taking precautions etc (Gillespie, 2019)-Being optimistic yet careful & mindful in your everyday seemingly simple decisions (Sharot, 2012) Consistent practice of mindfulness helps master our internal triggers that may cause risky behaviours, & helps in self-regulation of our emotions.
- In the context of current pandemic, “turning the action from one of personal risk to one of moral choice might interrupt the risk minimization process and boost preventative behaviours.” (Larsen, 2020)
I hope we don’t succumb to optimism bias, mainly in the context of a pandemic that has come with a tremendous social responsibility. Let’s be cautiously optimistic by following the suggested precautions, and help curb the spread of the virus. Follow social distancing, wash your hands and wear that mask. We’re not invincible. Let’s say YES to solidarity & NO to complacency!!
Cherry, K. (2020). The Optimism Bias: Are You Too Optimistic for Your Own Good? Retrieved from https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-the-optimism-bias-2795031
Coelho, M. (2020). Unrealistic Optimism: Still a Neglected Trait. Retrieved from
Gillespie, K. (2019). VICE – It Won’t Happen to Me: The Psychology Behind Optimism Bias. Retrieved from https://www.vice.com/en_in/article/a3an4a/it-wont-happen-to-me-the-psychology-behind-optimism-bias
Larsen, M. (2020). Optimistic bias: Why we think we are less likely than others to get coronavirus. Retrieved from https://scroll.in/article/957341/optimistic-bias-why-we-think-we-are-less-likely-than-others-to-get-coronavirus
Sharot, T. (2011). The optimism bias. Current Biology, 21(23), R941-R945. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2011.10.030
Sharot, T. (2012). The Optimism Bias by Tali Sharot: extract. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/science/2012/jan/01/tali-sharot-the-optimism-bias-extract
Szostek, A. (2018). How to avoid the optimism bias when building CX strategy? Retrieved from https://medium.com/nyc-design/how-to-avoid-the-optimism-bias-when-buinding-cx-strategy-92686330d65e
The Optimism Bias: Imagining A Positive Future. Retrieved from https://fs.blog/2014/02/the-optimism-bias/
Himaja Boinapalli is pursuing her final year in Bachelor of Sciences, Psychology from Stella Maris College, Chennai (Class of 2020, University of Madras). She has authored & presented her research papers in national & international conferences of NAOP & IAAP, in the field of organizational & positive psychology centering around Authentic Leadership. She also takes a keen interest in social, cultural & applied psychology.