Optimism bias, according to researcher Tali Sharot, is the belief that the future will probably be much better than the past and present. It is the tendency to overestimate the likelihood of good events happening to us in the future and underestimate the likelihood that bad events will occur. Most people hugely underestimate the odds of their getting cancer or losing their jobs. Though newlyweds know the discouraging statistics about divorce, they often believe their chances of getting divorced are low. Our view of ourselves is often influenced by this optimism bias. Most of us see ourselves as significantly better than average drivers, more modest than most, and way above the average in getting along with others.
The Positive Effects of Optimism Bias
People of all ages can have an optimism bias and it can be helpful. In terms of performance, people who have higher expectations that they will succeed usually feel better about the outcome, even if they don’t do well. When people with higher expectations for themselves succeed, they attribute their success to personal traits. When they don’t do well, they blame circumstances. For example, if they get a promotion, they attribute that success to their excellent business skills. If they don’t get a promotion, they might say the selection process was unfair. An optimism bias seems related to resiliency, the ability to get through difficult situations. Optimism is a form of hope.
People who rate higher on measures of anxiety and depression often do not have the optimism bias and may have more difficulty finding hope or having positive expectations. People who react more intensely to adverse events, such as the emotionally sensitive, are at high risk for developing anxiety or depression. They may not have the optimism bias.
Researchers believe that people with depression and anxiety pay attention to information in the environment that confirms their fears or negative views. If they host an event, they notice the people who did not attend rather than the people who did. They also may interpret the nonattendance in a more negative way. They would likely notice the one face that frowns during a presentation and not notice, or discount, the faces showing interest. In general they tend to focus more on the negative and ignore the positive.
The good news is that purposefully increasing your attention to positive information can lead to a more hopeful or optimistic attitude. You can learn to notice the faces who smile and to absorb the compliments you get instead of discounting them. You can learn to notice and be aware of your successes and the progress you make toward goals.
Ideas to Increase an Optimistic View
Simple ways to work on modifying a negative view and a tendency to only take in negative information include keeping a diary of the day’s events, being sure to include positive experiences. The positive psychology strategy of saying three gratitudes each day can be helpful. Being mindful of what is going right in your life can be done every day. When someone complients you, focus on accepting that the statement was genuine though you may not agree.
Using dialectical thinking to look for what you are leaving out, purposefully focusing on finding the positive in a situation is another idea. If you see a negative experession on someone’s face, look around to notice the expressions on others’ faces. That one person may be absorbed in his own thoughts that have nothing to do with you. Looking for a lesson learned or how well you coped instead of focusing only on the difficulty that occurred may increase your ability to bounce back.
For additional information, see the TED talk by Tali Sharot.
Hall, K. (2012). Optimism Bias. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 4, 2015, from http://blogs.psychcentral.com/emotionally-sensitive/2012/12/optimism-bias/