16 Mar

The optimistic bias

In this my first article about psychology, I will talk about the optimistic bias: the tendency of people to overestimate good events like our career in the future and underestimate bad events. A personal example that demonstrate the optimistic bias is the certainty I had last year to permanently live in Australia for more than 2 years. I did not evaluate if it would have been worth it or not, and I am now not as sure as before. Another example are marriages. 100% of spouses believe that their marriage will last forever, but as you can see in everyday life the divorce rates in the world is very high: from 20% to even more than 50% in some countries like Spain or Portugal.

Are you more or less intelligent of the average person? What about your driving capability or the capacity to get along with people? Most of us believe to be over the average person in these and many other abilities. Well, we cannot all be better than everyone else because this is statistically impossible. 🙂


So, is the optimistic bias positive or negative? Most of the people might assume that this bias is not positive and that to have low expectation is better because when things don’t happen we are not going to be disappointed. Furthermore, if something good happen we are happier because it wasn’t expected.
This assumption turn out to be false. Tali Sharot, psychologist and author of the book “The optimistic bias”, gives three reasons why an high expectation is better in her Ted Talk.

First, the interpretation of an event matters. People with high expectation will always feel better because when they succeed they attribute that success to their own characteristics and when they fail they attribute the reason of that failure to other factors. They know that the failure is just an exception and therefore they know the next time they’ll do better. On the other hand, people with low expectation do the opposite: when they fail they know it was because they were not able to do better, and when the succeed it was just because they were lucky and next time they will do bad as usual.

The second reason is that anticipation enhance reality. This means that envisioning future positive events can produce a very positive emotional response. The happiness of doing something we’ve been looking forward to does not increase only in that day but also during the days before. In a study which asked people if they were more willing to pay to kiss your favourite celebrity after 1 hour, or after 3 days, the majority of them chose the second option. The extra hours gave people more time to imagine the event. This is also the reason why people prefer Friday to Sunday. On Friday people can anticipate their weekend, on Sunday instead the only thing they can anticipate is the work week.

The third reason is that optimism is not only related to success but it also leads to success. Experiments have demonstrated that if we expect an amazing future, stress and anxiety are reduced. Furthermore, if we have high expectations we are much more willing to work harder to achieve our goals and succeed. Optimism has a lot of benefits.

Optimism - Like a picture

Of course, too much optimism may be also dangerous. If some smokers think the probability they’ll get lung cancer is 10%, but studies says the average is 5%, they’ll efficiently change their believe to 5 or 6 percent. On the other hand, if smokers think the probability for them is 1 or 2 percent, they will not change their believe even after the statistical results say it’s 5%. This means that we believe to signal like “Smoking kills” but we think that mostly it kills other people. Moreover, the optimistic bias can lead us to unnecessary risks with our health or finance. An example might be people who don’t respect speed limits in highways or people who invest huge amounts of money even if they know the percentage of success is incredibly low.

It is scientifically possible to eliminate the bias with electromagnetic impulses to some area of our brain. The question is “Do we really want to get rid of the optimistic bias?”. We have seen the benefits and harms of this bias. Being aware of them means that we may be able to control it more. It is important to have high expectation to improve our future but if we jump from a cliff without a parachute because we are optimist, that might not be a very good decision. The solution is to balance and follow our dreams being aware of the reality