Optimism Isn't Always a Good Thing — 3 Signs ‘Optimism Bias’ Is Holding You Back

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AnnaMarie Houlis4.87k
Journalist & travel blogger
April 18, 2024 at 7:7AM UTC
Optimism bias refers to a cognitive bias that makes someone believe they're less likely to experience something negative than others. It's essentially the act of someone being unrealistic about the possibility of negative happenings.
"While we often like to think of ourselves as highly rational and logical, researchers have found that the human brain is sometimes too optimistic for its own good," according to Very Well Mind. "If you were asked to estimate how likely you are to experience divorce, illness, job loss or an accident, you are likely to underestimate the probability that such events will ever impact your life. This is because your brain has a built-in optimism bias. The phenomenon is also often referred to as 'the illusion of invulnerability,' 'unrealistic optimism' and a 'personal fable.'"
For example, someone might have unfounded confidence in the belief that their boss would never fire them. They might have optimism bias that makes them believe they'd never get in trouble for taking too long of lunch breaks or for leaving the office early every day. Or they might have optimism bias that makes them feel so strongly that they'd never be passed up over their colleagues for a promotion. 
Someone with optimism bias may be heard saying, "That'd never happen to me," whether they have justifiable reasons or not.
"This phenomenon was initially described by Weinstein (1980), who found that the majority of college students believed that their chances of developing a drinking problem or getting divorced were lower than that of other students," according to Very Well Mind. "At the same time, the majority of these students also believed that their chances of positive outcomes like owning their own home and living into old age were much higher than their peers."
Having these beliefs can have a significant impact.

The impact of optimism bias

Optimism bias can cause people to feel blindsided, for example. If someone feels false hope or has unfounded confidence in a positive outcome of a situation, they may be blindsided when things don't pan out as they'd anticipated or when there's an unexpected turn of events. 
"This bias leads us to believe that we are less likely to suffer from misfortune and more likely to attain success than reality would suggest," according to Very Well Mind. "We believe that we will live longer than the average, that our children will be smarter than the average and that we will be more successful in life than the average. But by definition, we can't all be above average."
Of course, if and when those things don't happen, it can hurt.
Likewise, because people have these beliefs about themselves, they may foolishly engaging in risky behaviors or make unwise decisions about their health. They might, for example, skip their yearly phyical or not save up money to put in an emergency savings account or not buckle their seat belt or not put on sunscreen or not lock the doors. That's because they truly don't think they're likely to get sick, or to go broke, or to get in an accident, or to get skin cancer, or to get robbed.

Contributing factors

There are several contributing factors to optimism bias. 
  • People tend to believe that they're less likely to be affected by something that doesn't happen very often, such as flooding from an infrequent event like a hurricane. Maybe they don't get flood insurance because they don't believe that their home would ever flood, but when a hurricane strikes, they may wish that they had.
  • People tend to believe that they're less likely to be affected by negative outcomes when they themselves are in control of the situation. This is because they believe that they have the skills, experiences and know-how to beat any bad possible outcomes.
  • People tend to believe that they're less likely to be affected by a negative event if it's a rarity for people like them. For example, if they're young, they may not focus too much on their heart health because, generally, young people have healthier hearts. Or if breast cancer doesn't run in their family, perhaps they'll skip their mamographies. But just because their chances are slimmer than others doesn't mean that there's zero chance, of course.

How to alleviate it

There are ways to alleviate optimism bias so that you can make smarter choices.
  • Take a look at those around you and compare yourself to others like you. Maybe you don't believe that you'd ever fall ill with a disease, but you actually know someone you're age who was otherwise perfectly healthy who did. This kind of realization can help you to beat optimism bias and take more preventative care of yourself.
  • Think hard about your experiences in life thus far. Consider all of the times the seemingly impossible happened. Maybe it was back in college that you thought there was no way you'd fail a class, or maybe it was in high school when you thought there was no way a college would turn down your application — but you did fail a class, and a top school did turn you away. It's not healthy to dwell on these experiences, but it is important to acknowledge that they did happen so you can keep as realistic as humanly possible in the present moment.

Optimism bias at work

Optimism bias certainly affects people in the workplace.

  • What is optimism bias in project management? In project management, people may feel optimism bias about deadlines, project success, budgets and more. For example, they might underestimate how much time or money that they need to complete a project.

  • What is optimism bias construction? Optimism bias in construction is the same idea. Teams might underestimate how much time they need for a project, or how money they need or how many hands they need. As such, construction projects may have a weaker chance of being seen to fruition. Unrealistic goals and plans can lead to project failure.

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AnnaMarie Houlis is a feminist, a freelance journalist and an adventure aficionado with an affinity for impulsive solo travel. She spends her days writing about women’s empowerment from around the world. You can follow her work on her blog, HerReport.org, and follow her journeys on Instagram @her_report, Twitter @herreportand Facebook.

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