Tag Archives: Ellen Langer

Is Optimistic View of the Future Associated with Disabilities, Shorter Life Expectancy?

Frieder Lang

Frieder Lang

Frieder Lang of the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg and German Institute for Economic Research and his colleagues challenged the robust, replicated finding that optimism is associated with positive health outcomes.

David Weiss

David Weiss

Lang with University of Zurich’s David Weiss and Denis Gerstorf of Humboldt-University of Berlin and German Institute for Economic Research examined data from 1993 to 2003  German Socio-Economic Panel household surveys.

Denis Gerstorf

Denis Gerstorf

The team collaborated with Gert Wagner of German Institute for Economic Research and Max Planck Institute for Human Development evaluated approximately ratings from 40,000 people 18 to 96 years old, concerning their current and predicted life satisfaction in five years.

Gert Wagner

Gert Wagner

Their disruptive finding is that participants who expected highest life satisfaction in five years were more likely to experience disability and death within the following decade.

Five years after the first interviews:

  • 43 percent of participants were more satisfied with their lives than predicted,
  • 25 percent predicted accurately
  • 32 percent overestimated their life satisfaction with an optimistic bias.

Lang, Weiss, Gerstorf, and Wagner calculated that overestimating future life satisfaction was related to a 9.5 percent increase in reporting disabilities and a 10 percent increased incidence of death.

The youngest participants had the most optimistic outlook, whereas middle-aged adults made the most accurate predictions, but became more pessimistic over time.

Lauren Alloy

Lauren Alloy

Older adults’ predictions of future life satisfaction may be more accurate, albeit less optimistic, consistent with Shelley Taylor, Ellen Langer, Lauren Alloy, Lyn Abramson and others demonstration of an “optimism bias” and “depressive realism.”

Lyn Abramson

Lyn Abramson

In contrast to findings that higher income is associated with better health outcomes, Lang’s team found that stable, good health and income were associated with expecting a greater decline compared with those in poor health or with low incomes.
In contrast to other findings, higher income was related to a greater risk of disability.

Shelley Taylor

Shelley Taylor

Lang and team concluded that the outcomes of optimistic, accurate or pessimistic forecasts may depend on age, available resources, and motivation to adopt health-improving behaviors.
They acknowledged that unrealistic optimism about the future may help people feel better when they are facing inevitable negative outcomes, such as terminal disease.

Neil Weinstein

Neil Weinstein

Similarly, Neil Weinstein of Rutgers found that people may underestimate susceptibility to harm from a variety of hazards.
Close to 300 volunteers across age, gender, educational levels and occupational groups, demonstrated an optimism bias that they were less at risk than peers.

Weinstein hypothesized that optimism bias may be introduced when people extrapolate from their past experience to estimate their future vulnerability.
Therefore, volunteers future expectations may be biased  because they tended not to expect problems they had not already experienced.

He demonstrated that these personal risk judgments were not correlated with volunteers’ actual objective risk factors, suggesting that volunteers did not modify their optimistic biases based on laboratory findings, physical examination, and reported health habits.
Positive illusions persist even in the face of contradictory evidence.

Eric Kim

Eric Kim

These findings that optimistic bias may not be associated with positive health outcomes contrasts with findings from including University of Michigan’s Eric S Kim, Nansook Park, and Christopher Peterson, who found that “Dispositional Optimism” protects older adults from stroke.

George Patton

George Patton

Similarly, George Patton and colleagues at Royal Children’s Hospital in Parkville, Victoria, Australia reported that optimism has a somewhat protective effect on adolescent health risks in a prospective study.

Eric Giltay

Eric Giltay

Yet another counterpoint to Lang and team’s work was offered by Eric Giltay and colleagues at Leiden University Medical Center Johanna Geleijnse, Frans Zitman, Brian Buijsse, and Daan Kromhout, who demonstrated that optimists typically report healthier habits, like less smoking and drinking alcohol, more physical activity and consumption of fruit, vegetables and whole-grain bread.

-*What do you make of these conflicting findings about optimism’s role in health outcomes?

-*How have you seen optimism relate to health outcomes: Does it seem to drive healthy behaviors and outcomes or poorer health?

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Useful Fiction: Optimism Bias of Positive Illusions

Tali Sharot

Tali Sharot

Tali Sharot of University College London investigated people’s tendency toward unsubstantiated optimism after she observed this bias in her neuropsychological experiments on memory processes of envisioning future events and consequences.

Shelley Taylor

Shelley Taylor

She, like Shelley Taylor of UCLA decades before, argued that this bias was an evolutionary adaptation that enabled people to survive under difficult conditions.  Sharot added to Taylor’s work by suggesting that a majority of people demonstrate the optimism bias by a margin of 5:3.3.

The Optimism BiasSharot’s The Optimism Bias: A Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brain
compares optimism bias to other perceptual illusions, such as sometimes-fatal spatial disorientation among airplane pilots and other frequently-cited optical illusions like “Young Lady or Old Woman”, “Vase or Two Profiles”, and Thatcher illusion.

An example of optimism bias is the well-documented “superiority illusion”, that most people rate their skills, knowledge, and tendencies as above average in a variety of dimensions.

Ellen Langer

Ellen Langer

Another example was identified in 1975 by Ellen Langer of Harvard, who suggested that a pervasive “illusion of control” causes most people to overestimate their ability to control events, even those over which they have no influence.
This cognitive bias has been suggested as prevalent among “problem gamblers” and those who believe in paranormal phenomena.

Elizabeth Phelps

Elizabeth Phelps

Sharot and Elizabeth Phelps of New York University extended Taylor’s early work with neuropsychological research, and reported that the brain’s frontal cortex communication with the posterior hippocampus enables people to envision future possibilities and events.

They observed amygdala and the rostral anterior cingulate cortex activity when people demonstrate the optimism bias and noted that malfunctions in these brain areas are associated with a bias toward pessimism and related depression.

Lauren Alloy

Lauren Alloy

These findings were foreshadowed by Lauren Alloy of Temple University and Lyn Abramson of University of Wisconsin in their 1979 study, which found that people with depression are better able to predict future events accurately, whereas people not burdened with depression have inaccurately optimistic predictions.

Lyn Abramson

Lyn Abramson

“Depressive realism,” just as optimism bias can actually influence or alter future outcomes, as demonstrated in Robert Rosenthal’s classic Pygmalion in the Classroom study and “self-fulfilling prophecy,” leading to the idea that “perception is reality.”

Robert Rosenthal

Robert Rosenthal

Though inaccurate, optimism bias has positive effects. It has been observed to:

  • Reduce perceived stress
  • Improve physical health
  • Increase life span
  • Increase likelihood of people following recommended health practices like exercising, following low-fat diets, taking vitamins.

Sharot suggested that increasing awareness of optimism bias can help people enjoy the benefits of this positive illusion while watching for pitfalls of unrealistic optimism.

-*How do you capitalize on the optimism bias and mitigate its drawbacks?

Related Post:
Oxytocin Receptor Gene’s Link to Optimism, Self-Esteem, Coping with Stress

Sharot’s TED Talk

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