By now you should know about cognitive biases, how they form, and how they affect us. If not, you should check out the previous article on cognitive biases. In short, they are errors that our brains make, caused by the brain trying to make shortcuts, which can cause us to behave irrationally and strangely. The optimism bias is one of these very cognitive biases, and it is one of the most important ones to be aware of.
The optimism bias is a tendency to overestimate the chances of good events happening and underestimate the bad events. This bias applies only to ourselves, making us think that we are almost “an exception to the rule”, basically for every rule we can think of. If asked, 64% of American drivers think that they are “very good” drivers, or above average (Psychological science). If you know even a little bit of statistics, you know that this is impossible. This is the optimism bias at work. It causes us to have an illusion of invulnerability, to see ourselves in a “personal fable”, thus causing us to become bad at estimating events and probabilities that involve us (2).
It is estimated that about 80% of people experience the optimism bias (3). You can see this in sports fans overestimating their chances of winning a sporting event, in people believing they have above average looks, intelligence and so on. In a world so focused on being aware of our limitations, it certainly seems as though we don’t do a great job of being realistic. This is because our brains, as amazing as they are, do not do a great job at receiving bad news. Our brains section off news to two different areas. The left inferior frontal gyrus is tasked with receiving good news, and the right interior frontal gyrus is tasked with receiving bad news. And what do you know? The left gyrus functions like a charm, but the right gyrus does not. In fact, the more optimistic someone is, the less this region functions properly. There is also a portion of the brain, called the rostral anterior singular cortex (rACC), which enhances the flow of positive emotions (4) . The one group of people in which the rACC behaves abnormally is in the brains of the depressed. In fact, depression causes an almost reverse bias, a pessimism bias if you will.
Is the optimism bias bad?
Like most cognitive biases, the optimism bias causes us to make mistakes that could gravely affect us. We think bad things are less likely to happen to us, and therefore we do not prepare well for them. The optimism bias also causes warning signs, such as warnings against smoking, to not work, because most people believe it just will not affect them. But it also has it upsides. People who experience the optimism bias have higher expectations, and when these expectations are met, we feel better than if we had had lower expectations. The optimism bias is necessary for progress, because without it there would be fewer entrepreneurs, less risk takers and less innovators (5). The optimism bias causes us to overestimate our success, and therefore we reach further and higher. Optimistic people do better in tests because they believe in themselves more than pessimists do. If we don’t expect to do well, how can we ever possibly do well?
Although some optimism is good, excessive optimism may cause us to lose our money to lotteries, to make bad decisions and to not prepare for the worst. The good thing is that just being aware of the optimism bias can cause us to second guess our predictions. Next time you make a prediction, try to make a good estimate and a bad estimate. The real probability will probably be somewhere in the middle. Next time you decide to go camping and it pours as soon as you get there, don’t blame yourself, blame your overly optimistic brain!
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