Tag Archives: Optimism bias

Still Fulfilling Your New Year’s Resolutions?

-*Did New Year’s Resolutions fade as quickly as the month of January?

Katherine Milkman

Katherine Milkman

If so, University of Pennsylvania Katherine Milkman has a recommendation to resume the good intentions toward goals: “Nudges”—small environmental interventions that can shift behavior to increase adherence to challenging commitments, whether at work or in personal life.

Hengchen Dai

Hengchen Dai

Milkman collaborated with Wharton colleague Hengchen Dai and Harvard’s Jason Riis to investigate “temporal turning points” – moments that feel like a new beginning, like New Year’s Day or beginning a new job or school.

Jason Riis

Jason Riis

Milkman, Riis, and Dai reported several examples of the “fresh start effect”:  They found that the number of online Google searches for the term “diet” increase following temporal landmarks like the beginning of a new week, month, year, or semester; a birthday or a holiday.
The largest increase—82% above the baseline—occurred immediately after New Year’s Day for nine years they studied.

Similarly, the number of gym visits of 12,000 undergraduates over 18 months increased in January, then declined, with smaller increases at the beginning of each week, each month, and each term.

 This pattern also occurred among 43,000 participants in a goal-setting website, stickK, over 30 months.

Members can set goals and contractually agree to consequences for failing to attain them, such as community sanctions to monetary payments to disliked organizations.
The greatest number of contracts—145% above the average rate—were signed at the beginning of the New Year, and more contracts were signed at the beginning of each week.

Richard Thaler

Richard Thaler

Commitments to pursue and return to goals increase after these “notational boundary,” described by Richard Thaler of University of Chicago.
A temporally-triggered “fresh start” can compensate for limited willpower and persistence by giving people a chance to restart their commitments.

Besides “temporal turning points,” self-designed “nudges” can be contingency plans for a specific corrective action when confronted with the temptation to deviate from the goal path: “Whenever situation x arises, I will initiate the goal-directed response y.”

Peter Gollwitzer

Peter Gollwitzer

New York University’s Peter Gollwitzer calls these mitigation plans “implementation intentions,” which result in better adherence to goal-directed efforts when developed before tempting situational cues.

Stephen Ciccone

Stephen Ciccone

The stock market’s “January Effect” of better-than-average performance early in the year may result from the “fresh start” phenomenon, although Stephen J. Ciccone of University of New Hampshire argues that it may be more affected by investor optimism and the “false hope syndrome.”

Janet Polivy

Janet Polivy

University of Toronto’s Janet Polivy and C. Peter Herman describe the “false hope syndrome’s” unrealistic expectations about the likely speed, amount, ease, and consequences of self-change attempts, and subsequent disappointment of these optimistic aspirations.

Ciccone found that investor sentiment, as measured by the University of Michigan’s Index of Consumer Confidence, peaks in January and suggested that optimistic bid up stock prices of firms with higher levels of uncertainty.

C. Peter Herman

C. Peter Herman

Typically, these firms are unable to meet the optimistic expectations, and disappoint investors when they under-perform.
However, this pattern continues each year, probably due to the combined impact of  “fresh start effect” and the “false hope syndrome.”

Unrealistic optimism has been well-documented in overestimates of personal abilities, future performance and the impact of achieving goals, as well as underestimates of the time and effort to achieve goals.

Jeffrey Jensen Arnett

Jeffrey Jensen Arnett

Jeffrey Jensen Arnett of Clark University found that both 200 adolescents and more than 200 adults held optimistic biases regarding the risks of smoking even though the strong majorities of smokers and nonsmokers in these groups agreed that smoking is addictive and causes death for “most people” who smoke.

However, the adolescent and adult smokers doubted that they would die from smoking even if they smoked for 30 or 40 years, and most adolescents believed that they “could smoke for a few years and then quit.”

Roger Buehler

Likewis Roger Buehler

Likewise, most people underestimate time required to complete tasks, called “planning fallacy”  by Wilfred Laurier University’s Roger Buehler, Dale Griffin of University British Columbia and University of Waterloo’s Michael Ross.

Dale Griffin

Dale Griffin

They found that 465 volunteers:

  • Underestimated their own but not others’ completion times for academic and nonacademic tasks
  • Focused on future plans rather than comparing with similar past experiences when making completions time estimates
  • Attributed their past errors in predicting completion times to external, transient, and specific factors, implying less personal accountability for misjudgments.
Mike Ross

Mike Ross

Volunteers were able to eliminate their bias toward inaccurately optimistic estimates when they explicitly considered connect relevant past experiences to inform current estimates.

Fiona Jones

Fiona Jones

The optimism bias can be reduced by setting modest, attainable goals, according to University of Leeds’ Fiona Jones and Adrian Coggins with Peter Harris of University of Sussex and University of Hertfordshire’s Hilary Waller.

They compared 119 volunteers’ expectations about their participation in a twelve-week-long exercise course and their actual attendance, and found that participants who set smaller goals were more likely to achieve and maintain the goal behavior over time.

-*How effective are “temporal turning points” to initiate and re-start positive behaviors toward your goals?
-*How do you guard against optimism bias and “false hope syndrome” in planning and executing toward your goals?

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Reduce “Affective Forecasting” Errors with a Geographic Cure?

People must often make “affective predictions” about choice of life partner, occupation, residence, yet most everyone makes small, but systematic errors in forecasting personal emotional responses.

These misjudgments can negatively affect personal health, happiness, financial well-being, and interpersonal relationships.

Kostadin Kushlev

Kostadin Kushlev

University of British Columbia’s Kostadin Kushlev and Elizabeth Dunn identified these decision biases, and noted that one of the most well-known and widely-occurring affective forecasting errors is impact bias, the tendency to overestimate the intensity of emotional responses to future positive and negative events.

Elizabeth Dunn

Elizabeth Dunn

In addition, Kushlev and Dunn reported that people tend to overestimate the duration of future emotional reactions, labeled durability bias.

Seymour Epstein

Seymour Epstein

Also known as “focalism,” durability bias can occur when people rely on the “rational system” for information processing, according to Seymour Epstein of University of Massachusetts.

His Cognitive-Experiential Self Theory proposes that the “rational system” is used to make affective forecasts, and typically processes information slowly, analytically and abstractly.

Seymour Epstein-CESTIn contrast, the “experiential system” of information processing operates rapidly, associatively, holistically, and concretely.

Shifts between rational (“cold”) and experiential (“hot”) decision systems can cause another bias, “Empathy gap.”

Epstein posits that rational system processing can lead to imagining the event isolated from its broader context that may mitigate its emotional impact.
In this situation, it is easy to focus on distinctive, observable characteristics, and to overvalue these due to their availability rather than their actual future impact.

Relying on the rational system may lead to another error, immune neglect, when people underestimate their likelihood of later reinterpreting future events to reduce negative feelings.

Anna Freud

Anna Freud

Epstein refers to this self-care process as the “psychological immune system” that enables recovery from negatively-tinged emotional events.
This is a more positive reinterpretation of Anna Freud’s focus on defense mechanisms.

Another predictive error, underestimating the power of future affective states can occur when people don’t consider the impact of physical states like hunger and thirst.

Habit-control programs like Alcoholics Anonymous implicitly recognize the tendency to underestimate future emotional states by urging participants to “HALT” while they consider whether problematic urges stem from being “Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired.”

Sometimes forecasting errors are based on inaccurate theories about the determinants of happiness, such as being able to reverse decisions or having more choices.
In addition, people often overlooked the influence of their own dispositions, such as optimism,  in predicting future feelings.
The result of this error, “personality neglect,” can lead to overestimates of future happiness by people who score high on the personality characteristic “neuroticism.”

Roger Buehler

Roger Buehler

Despite people’s imperfect ability to predict future emotions, whether happy or unhappy, people who expect positive emotions in the future report greater present satisfaction, according to Wilfrid Laurier University’s Roger Buehler, Vassili Spyropoulos and Kent C. H. Lam with Cathy McFarland of Simon Fraser University.

Even if fueled by another thinking error, optimism bias, positive anticipation improves the present moment and may play a central role in each individual’s psychological immune system.

Biases and thinking errors in considering future emotional reactions can be minimized by:

  • Defocusing on the anticipated emotional occurrence
  • Considering emotional outcomes in similar previous experiences
  • Anticipating  consequences of other simultaneous future events
  • Previewing the future state with feedback from others
Chip Heath-Dan Heath

Chip Heath-Dan Heath

Similarly Stanford’s Chip Heath and Dan Heath of Duke Corporate Education suggest mitigating decision bias with WRAP:

  • Widen your options
  • Reality-check your options
  • Attain distance before deciding
  • Prepare to be wrong.
Kristin Weger

Kristin Weger

University of Alabama at Huntsville’s Kristin Weger and Sandra Carpenter demonstrated that “guided flexivity” or “structured reflection” can improve performance on simulation game tasks over multiple trials.
They found that volunteers reduced errors in predicting future emotions by evaluating expectations in comparison to actual experience during a “post-mortem” session to review “lessons learned.”

Sandra Carpenter

Sandra Carpenter

Wegner and Carpenter found that guided reflexivity increased individuals’ awareness of their roles as well as others’ expertise and responsibilities in the target situation.

Other strategies to improve performance and decisions require even more commitment, like finding that living in a more “interdependent” culture like Japan for even a year.

This type of “geographic intervention” results in increased people’s consideration of contextual factors in decision making and creativity.

-*Time to book a flight?

-*How accurate are you in predicting your feelings about a specific choice or situation in the future?

-*How do you detect and mitigate bias in predicting your future emotional reactions?

-*What positive and negative impacts have you observed in affective forecasting errors?

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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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