Noted: The Science of Our Optimism Bias

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.

optimism-01The perils of optimism

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 – 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!

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Corinne Pritchard

Information Designer at Simply Understand
I believe design and design­ers can and should make the world a better place. I love design­ing things that help people under­stand complex ideas.

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