“It won’t happen to me”: The optimism bias

EKU Online > “It won’t happen to me”: The optimism bias

By: Dr. Richard Osbaldiston, Ph.D.

Do you think you are a better-than-average driver? Chances are you do. And you know what? So do 80-90% of other drivers.  

On the old radio show “Prairie Home Companion,” there was a fictitious town called Lake Wobegon where “all the children are above average.” Think about that for a second: not everyone can be above average.

There are a variety of things in which we all think we are above average, including health, popularity, memory, attractiveness, and even academic and job performance. In fact, there are so many things that we think we are good at that there is name for it: optimism bias.

Optimism bias is the belief that each of us is more likely to experience good outcomes and less likely to experience bad outcomes. The key to optimism bias is that we disregard the reality of an overall situation because we think we are excluded from the potential negative effects.  

This is why warning labels don’t seem to work. You have probably seen warning labels spelling out the health consequences of cigarettes.  But in spite of those labels, about 500,000 people die from using tobacco products every year. You have heard warnings about not driving while intoxicated. Yet about 10,000 people die every year in alcohol-related traffic accidents. And despite the warnings about the dangers of having unprotected sex, unbelievably, there are about 40,000 new HIV cases each year.

There are two antidotes to the optimism bias. The first antidote is to focus on the positive rather than the negative.  If you are trying to convince your teenage child not to smoke, don’t tell him if he smokes he will get cancer. Rather tell him that if he doesn’t smoke he is more likely to make the basketball team.

The second antidote relates to stress. When we are in stressful situations, the optimism bias is not as strong. That is, we make more accurate decisions when we are under stress. The classic research on this was done with firefighters. The more stress we endure in a given situation, the less invincible we feel, and when we feel less invincible we make better decisions. The optimism bias isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It is nice to live life thinking that good things will happen to us. But by acknowledging the optimism bias and being aware of how it affects us, we can make better decisions and avoid potential pitfalls.

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