Reading over this article The Science of Our Optimism Bias and the Life-Cycle of Happiness from Brain Pickings, I was struck by the often repeated idea that we are ‘hardwired’ for optimism, and that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
But as part of my dissertation I was looking at the different ways researchers have tried to affect the way people think about their health, and some very clear downsides to optimism came out.
In four separate studies of perception of health risk, researchers Weinstein and Klein found that in general, even if they were objective about health risks in general. the participants in their study were slightly too optimistic about their own health risks.
1. They used obesity and alcoholism as examples of conditions where people might be more optimistic than they should be about their health and habits. For their first study, they asked the people taking part to tell them how healthy their habits were — before and after reading about the major downsides of the condition.
Verdict: No noticeable change in their judgement of their risk.
2. The second experiment, unlike the typical health approach where people are asked to compare their behaviour against unfavourable examples of the same, those taking part in the study were asked questions based on “perfect” behaviour â€“ an imaginary person who exercised 4 times a week, or never got drunk.
Verdict: Far from encouraging better behaviour, this technique in fact increased optimism about current personal lifestyle choices.
3. In the third study, the people taking part were specifically asked to project a mental image of the worst or best case scenarios for these conditions, then combine them onto a single individual who was “like” themselves. Study participants had the biggest problems when it came to visualising the best case scenario. They found it much easier to visualise the worst case.
Verdict: Once again, this resulted in more optimism about the participants” personal behaviours.
4. In the final study, participants were asked to come up with their own list of activities that would raise or lower their risk of the conditions in question. Those asked to formulate risk-lowering activities became more optimistic about their current level of behaviour, and listing risk-increasing activities had no noticeable effect on their original slightly inflated optimism.
Verdict: Increased optimism, or no change.
So there you have it. Whether we’re visualising the perfect us, imagining the worst, or even constructing the steps that would help us be healthier, we either see ourselves in a favourable light, or what we’re doing has no effect on our motivation to get healthier.
Well, I’m depressed now!