Motivation and emotion/Book/2021/Optimism bias

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Optimism bias:
What is optimism bias and how does it influence our lives?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Figure 1. An optimistic man smiling in black and white.

Optimism is seen in individuals who consistently expect good things will happen to them (see Figure 1), which has frequently been linked to positive outcomes in research, such as better well-being and physical health (Carver et al., 2010). However, despite the positive benefits seen for individuals who hold an optimistic mindset, research has also found negative outcomes can occur when optimism is taken too far. This is often seen with optimism bias, also known as unrealistic optimism, which refers to the inaccurate assumption that positive outcomes will occur despite the reality of the situation (Sharot, 2011). Examples of optimism bias can be seen in people's underestimation of their likelihood to get a divorce, or have a car accident, and their overestimation of success in the workplace (Sharot, 2011). The interesting thing about optimism bias is that it results in cognition going against learning theory, where people are expected to adjust their expectations when presented with dis-confirming information, and instead individuals maintain their overly positive beliefs in spite of contradictory information (Sharot, 2011).

The influence of optimism bias on cognition subsequently has a range of impacts, from psychopathology to daily life. A lack of optimism bias has been linked with some mental disorders, such as depression and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) (Sharot, 2011; Zetsche et al., 2015). Optimism bias also permeates daily life, as its effect on cognition can influence decision making and risk perception that individuals encounter on a daily basis (Bottemanne et al., 2020). It is clear that while optimism bias can bring some protective and adaptive benefits, drawbacks and maladaptive outcomes from optimism bias exist. As such, this chapter explores the theories and mechanisms underlying optimism bias, alongside the extent of the influence optimism bias has over our lives.

Focus questions:

  • What is optimism bias?
  • Is optimism bias adaptive or maladaptive?
  • How can optimism bias influence our lives?

What is optimism bias?[edit | edit source]

Figure 2. A silhouette of a man with optimistic terms collated in place of his brain

One of the most important aspects of our decision making process is our ability to predict potential outcomes in the future so we can effectively prepare (Sharot, 2011). However, individuals consistently demonstrate optimism bias in their future predictions by underestimating the likelihood of negative outcomes, and conversely overestimating the likelihood of positive outcomes (Kress & Aue, 2017). Surprisingly, this overly positive expectation of how future events will unfold is maintained despite extensive experience with reality challenging such biased beliefs (Sharot et al., 2011).

Neural mechanisms of optimism bias[edit | edit source]

A range of neuropsychological processes that function to create and maintain optimism bias have been identified in research (see Figure 2). Upon investigation of why individuals fail to alter their optimistic beliefs despite receiving conflicting information, researchers found that participants focused on information that was better than expected when updating their beliefs, more so than information that was worse (Sharot et al., 2011). These findings suggested that optimism bias could be linked with a decreased neural coding of negative information, alongside a selective failure update in frontal lobe regions (Sharot et al., 2011). This effect was especially prominent within highly optimistic individuals, as their right inferior frontal gyrus displayed reduced tracking of estimation errors when presented with information that should result in a negative update of beliefs (Sharot et al., 2011).

Both the amygdala and the rostral anterior cingulate cortex have also been identified as key areas involved in mediating optimism bias by tracking emotional salience (Sharot et al., 2007). Comparing brain activation for individuals imagining positive or negative events, enhanced activation was present in both the amygdala and rostral anterior cingulate cortex for positive events, suggesting a tendency in the brain to promote conceptualisations of positive events over negative ones (Sharot et al., 2007).

Research has also linked dopamine function with optimism bias through chemical enhancement of dopamine levels, finding that dopamine influences belief formation by reducing negative expectations about the future (Sharot et al., 2012). Neural links have also been identified between optimism and reward-related attention biases (Kress & Aue, 2017). The neural network of activation in the posterior and anterior cingulate cortex, as well as the amygdala, was identified to be common to both optimism and reward-related attention bias, suggesting a mutual influence of one on the other (Kress & Aue, 2017). However, further research examining these two biases in concurrence is needed to identify the underlying mechanisms, with current research speculating bias in memory may be a factor connecting optimism and reward-related attention bias (Kress & Aue, 2017).

What are the two key brain areas involved in optimism bias:

Anterior cingulate cortex and the amygdala
Temporal lobe and the prefrontal gyrus

Optimism bias: adaptive or maladaptive?[edit | edit source]

Considering that individuals with healthy brains display optimism bias, questions over whether optimism bias is an adaptive function arise. Research has found protective and adaptive benefits of optimism bias for both physical and mental health (Sharot, 2011). The expectation of positive future events has been shown to be a protective factor against depression and anxiety, proving optimism bias to be favourable for mental health (Sharot, 2011). Furthermore, the ability of optimism bias to reduce stress and anxiety has beneficial flow on effects for physical health, by preventing the detrimental health outcomes caused by chronic stress (Sharot, 2011). Additionally, engagement with health-promotion behaviours is seen to be higher in optimists, suggesting that expectations of positive health outcomes influence the individual to behave in ways that benefit their health (Sharot, 2011).

However, maladaptive outcomes of optimism bias have also been identified, largely due to the underestimation of risk that occurs when overestimating the likelihood of positive outcomes (Sharot, 2011). Consequently, optimism bias can also result in individuals engaging in behaviours that are pleasurable in the short term, but potentially dangerous in the long term, for example smoking and unprotected sex (Sharot, 2011). While it is clear that optimism bias comes with a set of pros and cons, it has been suggested that the benefits of optimism bias outweigh the costs, as without it, theorists suggest human evolution would have stalled (Sharot, 2011). Biologists theorise that optimism bias was crucial to human evolution, as with the development of conscious foresight, came an understanding of negative future scenarios, e.g., old age, sickness, elucidating the necessity of optimism bias to promote the continuation of activities for survival despite the inevitability of death in the future (Sharot, 2011).

Case Study: Is optimism bias adaptive in an academic context?

715 psychology students in South Africa were surveyed on their expectations for their academic grades, which was then used as an expectancy score to be compared to their actual grades at the end of their semester. The comparison between expected and actual grades found that optimism bias may be maladaptive in an academic context, with optimists overestimating their grades by 20.6%, compared to realists who overestimated by 0.35% and pessimists underestimating by 14.33%. (Ochse, 2014).

Psychopathology and optimism bias[edit | edit source]

Figure 3. Silhouette of a depressed man sitting on the ground.

After unveiling the protective benefits of optimism bias for mental health, it is unsurprising that deficits in optimism bias have been linked with mental disorders such as depression (see Figure 3), anxiety and OCD. One of the key mechanisms underlying optimism bias is the updating of beliefs in line with positive information over negative information, which is seen amongst healthy participants in research (Korn et al., 2014). However, in participants with depression, the optimistic bias in belief updating was not present, and furthermore, as the severity of depression symptomatology increased, so did the bias in pessimistic belief updating (Korn et al., 2014).

Likewise, a lack of optimistic bias has also been found in individuals with OCD, specifically for threat estimation (Zetsche et al., 2015). One of the key cognitive mechanisms in the maintenance of OCD is the overestimation of threatening events occurring, with individuals with OCD overestimating their personal risk of experiencing a negative event (Zetsche et al., 2015). Interestingly, this lack of optimism bias did not extend to their estimations for other people experiencing aversive events (Zetsche et al., 2015).

On the other hand, optimism bias has been found to interfere with help-seeking intentions for individuals with depression (Spendelow & Jose, 2009). When asked to rate problem seriousness, help seeking importance and prognosis when imagining oneself or a friend with a vignette of depressive symptoms, participants with depression reported lower levels of seriousness and need for help for themselves, as well as a more favourable prognosis (Spendelow & Jose, 2009). However, participants with depression gave more accurate ratings when imagining a friend, suggesting that their optimism bias regarding depressive symptoms did not extend past the individual (Spendelow & Jose, 2009).

While current research has highlighted some fascinating interactions between optimism bias and psychopathology, it is clear this research has only just scratched the surface. Further research identifying the influence, or alternatively, lack of optimism bias with mental disorders other than depression or OCD would be beneficial in broadening the scope of research. Additionally, research on mental health intervention strategies utilising optimism bias could be of practical significance.

Individuals with OCD overestimate the risk of threat for themselves and others:


Optimism bias and its influence on daily life[edit | edit source]

Given the pervasiveness of optimism bias in a wide range of human cognitions, it evident that optimism bias has an extensive influence on daily life. Negative events or bad outcomes are frequently encountered in daily life, and a person's explanatory style reflects the way people consistently explain why bad outcomes happen to them, through a generally stable cognitively based personality variable, and is considered to be either be optimistic or pessimistic (Reeve, 2018). An optimistic explanatory style, which is fostered by an illusion of control, provides an explanation for bad events in terms of attributions that are unstable and controllable (Reeve, 2018). Attributing to the bad outcome to instability, means that the cause of the bad outcome is fleeting and changeable across time and situations, for example, 'I couldn't focus in the test because I had a cold, so that is the reason why I failed' (Reeve, 2018). Making the attribution of the bad outcome controllable, conceptualises the bad outcome as able to be changed and brought under individual control, for example, 'my lack of study is why I failed, so I just need to study more next time' (Reeve, 2018). Thus, optimistic explanatory style, as an extension of optimism bias, highlights how optimism bias can influence our perception of bad events that occur in everyday life.

Influence of optimism bias on decision making[edit | edit source]

The overestimation of the likelihood of positive outcomes perpetuated by optimism bias consequently has a flow on influence on the decision making required in daily life. Optimism bias can promote decision making towards health-promotion behaviours, but conversely, can result in risky decision making towards behaviours that hold short term pleasure but long-term risk, such as smoking. Research looking specifically at the interaction between optimism bias and smoking, found that while both smokers and non-smokers alike agreed that increased health risk was present for the average smoker, smokers rated themselves as less likely to be at risk of smoking-related diseases than the average smoker (McKenna et al., 1993). Hence, a clear optimism bias is present for an individual's own health risk from smoking, influencing their decision making towards the continuation of the risky behaviour.

The influence of optimism bias on decision making has also been researched in a professional context. In terms of project management in the workplace, one of the key factors for success is developing an achievable schedule (Prater et al., 2017). However, unrealistic scheduling can often interfere with the success of projects, with optimism bias being identified in research as one of the major causes behind unrealistic scheduling, further highlighting the contribution of optimism bias to inaccurate decision making (Prater et al., 2017).

Optimism bias can interfere with productivity in the workplace by contributing to:

unrealistic scheduling
too many office parties

Impact of optimism bias on risk perception[edit | edit source]

By causing the individual to underestimate the likelihood of negative outcomes, optimism bias also has a strong influence on risk perception. Research has found the influence of optimism bias in reducing perception of risk extends from well known risks i.e., smoking, to new risks i.e., COVID-19 (Costa-Font et al., 2009). However, greater optimism bias was seen for risks that primarily benefit the individual, such as mobile phone radiation, compared to societal risks, such as climate change, suggesting the existence of an individual optimism, whereby people view societal risks as greater than risk to themselves (Costa-Font et al., 2009). Findings such as these suggest that when individuals maintain optimistic perceptions for new risks, risk evaluation is reduced, increasing the likelihood of acceptance (Costa-Font et al., 2009).

Furthermore, research investigating the presence of optimism bias within all elements of the Health Belief Model (HBM), found that optimism bias extends further than just perceived risk, and was present in all elements of the HBM (Clarke et al., 2000). Looking specifically at the HBM in the context of prostate cancer, optimism bias was seen for both the risk and severity of a prostate cancer diagnosis, as well as an overestimation of the benefits of screening and an underestimation of the barriers to screening (Clarke et al., 2000).

Case Study: Optimism bias in the context of COVID-19

When the first cases of COVID-19 began to spread outside of China back in January of 2020, despite epidemiologists across the globe highlighting the threat of a global pandemic, little was done by governments or individuals to adopt precautionary measures to respond accurately to the threat of COVID-19. Nearly two years later, we are all far too familiar with the importance of COVID safe behaviours and living through lockdowns to protect ourselves from the very real threat of the catching the virus. Research has shown, that despite the hundreds of millions of COVID cases worldwide, individuals severely underestimate their risk of catching the virus, infecting others with the virus, as well as being more worried about the potential health impact of the virus for others than for themselves (Bottemanne et al., 2020; Pascuale-Leone et al., 2021). This reduced risk perception of the spread of COVID-19 especially highlights the influence of optimism bias in daily life, on a global scale.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Figure 3. Silhouette of a girl jumping in a sunset.

Evidently, optimism bias has an extensive influence over individual cognition and subsequently, daily life (see Figure 3). A wide range of research has provided insight into how our belief updating processes, are optimistically biased to take on positive over negative information, resulting in individuals maintaining overly positive expectations for future outcomes, despite the reality of the situation (Sharot, 2011). Various neurocognitive processes have been identified that facilitate this bias, such as; a selective failure update in the frontal lobe regions in response to negative information (Sharot et al., 2011), enhanced activation in the amygdala and rostral anterior cingulate cortex in response to imagination of positive events (Sharot et al, 2007), and dopamine reducing negative expectations about the future to influence belief formation (Sharot et al., 2012). Similarities between neural networks involved in optimism bias and reward-related attention bias have also been identified, however further research is required to further examine the connection between the two (Kress & Aue, 2017).

The question as to whether optimism bias is adaptive or maladaptive however is trickier to answer given the multitudes of conflicting information. The presence of optimism bias in healthy individuals, and its' protective benefits for physical and mental health, seem to paint the picture that optimism bias is an adaptive function (Sharot, 2011). Furthermore, the links between mental disorders such as OCD and depression and deficits in optimism bias, provide additional support for the adaptive nature of optimism bias as without it, we are at risk for developing a mental health condition (Zetsche et al., 2015; Korn et al., 2014). However, research has also shown that optimism bias can interfere with help seeking intentions for individuals with depression (Spendelow & Jose, 2009), and encourage risk taking behaviours that are pleasurable in the short term but hold a negative long term consequence i.e., smoking (Sharot, 2011). Thus, while the adaptive benefits of optimism bias might outweigh the negative, awareness of the maladaptive consequences of optimism bias are also important to take into account.

It is clear that optimism bias has a vast influence over daily life. From its direct effect on cognition through an optimistic explanatory style, optimism bias has a strong influence over how we perceive the stability and level of control we have over bad things that happen to us (Reeve, 2018). Additionally, the influence of optimism bias has also been identified in daily life problems in the workplace, for example, resulting in unrealistic schedules being created in the context of project management (Prater et al., 2017). Optimism bias also has a pervasive influence on decision making and risk perception in the context of health behaviours, often resulting in individuals underestimating their personal risk of adverse outcomes from health risks, such as smoking and cancer (McKenna et al., 1993; Clarke et al., 2000). As with all biases, it is important to be aware of the influence optimism bias has over their everyday life, in order to maximise the adaptive benefits it brings, while also being aware of the unrealistic cognitions and the maladaptive outcomes optimism bias may also bring.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Bottemanne, H., Morlaàs, O., Fossati, P., & Schmidt, L. (2020). Does the coronavirus epidemic take advantage of human optimism bias?. Frontiers In Psychology, 11.

Bottemanne, H., Morlaàs, O., Fossati, P., & Schmidt, L. (2020). Does the coronavirus epidemic take advantage of human optimism bias?. Frontiers In Psychology, 11.

Korn, C., Sharot, T., Walter, H., Heekeren, H., & Dolan, R. (2013). Depression is related to an absence of optimistically biased belief updating about future life events. Psychological Medicine, 44(3), 579-592.

Kress, L., & Aue, T. (2017). The link between optimism bias and attention bias: A neurocognitive perspective. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 80, 688-702.

McKenna, F., Warburton, D., & Winwood, M. (1993). Exploring the limits of optimism: The case of smokers' decision making. British Journal Of Psychology, 84(3), 389-394.

Ochse, C. (2012). The optimism bias: Is it adaptive in academic settings?. Journal Of Psychology In Africa, 22(3), 415-417.

Pascual‐Leone, A., Cattaneo, G., Macià, D., Solana, J., Tormos, J., & Bartrés‐Faz, D. (2021). Beware of optimism bias in the context of the COVID ‐19 pandemic. Annals Of Neurology, 89(3), 423-425.

Prater, J., Kirytopoulos, K., & Ma, T. (2017). Optimism bias within the project management context. International Journal Of Managing Projects In Business, 10(2), 370-385.

Reeve, J. (2018). Understanding motivation and emotion (7th ed., pp. 246-249). Wiley.

Sharot, T. (2011). The optimism bias. Current Biology, 21(23), 941-945.

Sharot, T., Guitart-Masip, M., Korn, C., Chowdhury, R., & Dolan, R. (2012). How dopamine enhances an optimism bias in humans. Current Biology, 22(16), 1477-1481.

Sharot, T., Korn, C., & Dolan, R. (2011). How unrealistic optimism is maintained in the face of reality. Nature Neuroscience, 14(11), 1475-1479.

Sharot, T., Riccardi, A., Raio, C., & Phelps, E. (2007). Neural mechanisms mediating optimism bias. Nature, 450(7166), 102-105.

Spendelow, J., & Jose, P. (2010). Does the optimism bias affect help-seeking intentions for depressive symptoms in young people?. The Journal Of General Psychology, 137(2), 190-209.

Zetsche, U., Rief, W., & Exner, C. (2015). Individuals with OCD lack unrealistic optimism bias in threat estimation. Behavior Therapy, 46(4), 510-520.

External links[edit | edit source]