The Optimism Bias
The ‘positive vibes’ trend gained a lot of popularity in recent years. Having a sunny disposition in life is much…
February 1, 2021 | 4 mins read
The ‘positive vibes’ trend gained a lot of popularity in recent years. Having a sunny disposition in life is much appreciated but there may be a flip side to it? Pixar’s Inside Out showed how toxic extreme optimism and positivity can be. It told us that it’s okay not to feel okay sometimes.
An overly optimistic mindset often makes way for optimism bias. Read on to learn more about this bittersweet cognitive bias and its impact on our daily lives.
As humans, we tend to overestimate positive events in our life. We consider ourselves to be rational beings, but there are times when we get too optimistic for our own good. While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, underestimating the probability of negative events has its side-effects.
Optimism bias is a mistaken belief that our chances of experiencing positive events are higher and chances of experiencing undesirable events are lower compared to what our peers experience. In other words, we tend to overestimate the likelihood of experiencing positive or pleasant events. Having an overly sunny outlook on our lives can lead to poor decision-making.
Here are some examples of optimism bias that are quite common:
Not adding money to an emergency fund because you overestimate your job security
Organizations not creating a risk management plan because they underestimate the likelihood of risks
Being confident about landing a job because you graduated from an elite educational institute
Tali Sharot, the author of The Optimism Bias: A Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brain (2011), notes that this bias is widespread. We tend to engage in risky behavior even at the workplace. Project managers are often blinded by this neurological bias. Here are some ways in which optimism bias can put projects in harm’s way:
Despite facing risks in the past, you’re likely to hope for the better in the future because of optimism bias. You downgrade the probability, reducing the likelihood of appropriate responses.
Many organizations believe that an open discussion on risk factors indicates that you don’t believe in your project as much. You’re likely to be chastised if you want to put aside some money for a rainy day or request reasonable levels of contingency funding.
If a project is doing badly and you communicate about the changes to the stakeholders, they are often frustrated. This low tolerance towards bad news is a result of optimism bias.
Researchers have stated that optimism bias is hardwired into our brains, making it impossible to be absolutely bias-free. However, it’s possible to challenge and minimize them consciously. Before we fast-forward to the way of minimizing them, let’s look at the factors contributing to this bias:
Infrequent events influence optimism bias. We think that we aren’t likely to get affected because it happens so rarely (for example, natural disasters).
We often think that we have things under control, making us believe in our skills to manage things that are beyond our control.
If a negative event is perceived as unlikely, we undermine its likelihood of occurring (for example, a severe health disorder).
Now let’s look at the factors that can decrease optimism bias and improve your decision-making abilities:
Experience the event: Negative experiences are likely to minimize optimism bias
Look at something from a third-person perspective: When you take an outsider’s view, you understand that not everything can be seen through rose-tinted glasses.
Imagine the worst: It’s unhealthy to always worry about the worst, but shortlisting possible risk factors can be beneficial.
While having an overly sunny outlook on life isn’t healthy, optimism bias can be self-fulfilling. For example, many people achieve success in life by believing in their ability to succeed. Optimism creates a sense of anticipation for the future, prompting you to have a positive or growth mindset. It can motivate you to pursue goals with greater enthusiasm and nudge you to stay positive even when things get difficult.
You need to think critically to establish a fine line between optimism and optimism bias. Harappa Education’s Thinking Critically course will help you develop this much-needed skill. You’ll never make decisions without evaluating a situation first. The Mental Models Framework will help critically think through situations. The CAFE Framework of Clarifying, Adjoining, Funneling, and Elevating questions will help you identify any loopholes in your thought process. Never let biases distort your thinking again!
Explore topics such as Critical Thinking, Types of Thinking, Examples of Critical Thinking & How to Improve Your Critical Thinking from Harappa Diaries and enhance the ability to think clearly and rationally.