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psychology

It Won’t Happen to Me: The Psychology Behind Optimism Bias

Why do we trick ourselves into feeling positive about an outcome against all odds?

by Katherine Gillespie
29 May 2019, 4:51am

Illustration by Ben Thomson

This article is supported by the WA Road Safety Commission who want to reduce speeding. Cops are everywhere, but for some reason most of us think we won't get caught. In this piece, we look at this crazy little thing called optimism bias.

Maybe you’re a pessimistic person. Who can blame you? The world is a cold and dark place, right now. Things... aren’t going super well, let’s just say that.

Except there’s probably a caveat to your bad mood. You might believe that World War Three is on the horizon, but you also probably think that you, personally, will be okay when someone drops the first nuke. That’s because around 80 percent of people, across all age groups and genders, suffer from what social psychologists call optimism bias. It’s that enduring, against-all-odds belief that things are going to work out on an individual level, and it’s a nice feeling. Unfortunately, it can also lead us to take unnecessary risks in everyday life.

An academic named Tali Sharot brought the theory of optimism bias into popular consciousness. Her underlying idea is that many of the seemingly unbiased decisions we make every day are actually influenced by the fact that we think positively about the future. Sure, this is a good thing, but it also gives way to that ‘it won’t happen to me’ attitude. Do you think your relationship will be the one to last? Are you fairly sure you’re not going to get skin cancer, even though you know multiple people who’ve been diagnosed? Do you, like 90 percent of people, believe yourself to be a better-than-average driver who is more skilled at manoeuvring their vehicle at dangerously high speeds? The maths doesn’t quite add up, and that’s how optimism bias gets us.

“There are a few reasons for optimism bias,” Sharot explains to VICE. “One is the issue of control. You tend to believe you have control over your life, and you tend to believe you have more control than you actually do. Most of us overestimate the potential of everything ever. “Regardless of gender, age, or where you live, the things you tend to be optimistic about are the things you care about like relationships and professional success,” Sharot explains. Optimism bias could be an evolutionary mechanism that we’ve developed over time. Research has found that its coded into the brain’s frontal lobe, which means it’s theoretically useful for the survival of humanity.“On the positive side of optimism bias, all things being equal, optimists live longer and are healthier,” says Tarot. “Because of this optimism they take action, they’re motivated.”

But you can also see how blinding all that foolhardy optimism can be. It’s what leads us to fall in love for the fiftieth time, even though we’ve been traumatised by the breakdown of each previous relationship. It’s also what leads us to take stupid and unnecessary everyday risks, like drive over the speed limit or ride a bicycle without a helmet. Bad things happen to other people, right? Wrong.

The negative side of optimism bias is that we underestimate risks. “We need to be aware of our bias in general and take precautions against it,” Sharot says. “Protect ourselves, knowing we have this bias towards positivity.”

Every time you’re making a seemingly simple decision––like whether or not to put on your seatbelt when you’re only driving around the block, or deciding to cut your own fringe with a pair of blunt kitchen scissors right before a job interview––take into account your own inherent belief that things will probably be fine, and reassess your actions. Because let’s face it: your odds of getting caught by police for driving over the speed limit are actually just as high as anyone else’s, even though your dumb optimism-prone brain is trying to convince you otherwise.

Optimism bias is motivating and useful, but even more so if we recognise how much of a role it plays in our subconscious decision-making. In order to make the most of the capacity for positive thought, we should try to change our behaviours rather than the bias itself.

This article is supported by the WA Road Safety Commission

This article originally appeared on VICE AU.