When Too Much Optimism Blinds Us


Optimists are said to be those who see the glass as half full, while pessimists see the glass as half empty. An optimist often tries to find the good in everything, and often this perspective can cause less stress, less anxiety, and a more empowering and motivating attitude.

Positive psychologist Martin Seligman coined the term learned optimism to explain that people can cultivate more optimism by challenging their negative self-talk. Today many people strive to be more optimistic in their daily lives.

However, despite these benefits, some research is showing that too much optimism in certain situations can actually be harmful.

According to psychologists, excessive optimism can cause us to ignore information that goes against our rose-tinted perspective (a kind of “cognitive bias”). This leads some optimistic people to only focus on benefits, but at the same time ignore risks and costs.

In one study, experimenters had participants estimate the risk of a negative event happening to them in the future, such as car theft or getting cancer. After the participant predicted a probability, they were told the actual statistical likelihood it would happen to them.

After a short break, participants were then asked again what the probability of a certain negative event was. What researchers found was that optimistic people only changed their estimates when the information they were given was better than expected, but tended to ignore information that went against their optimism:

    “For example if they had predicted that their likelihood of suffering from cancer was 40%, but the average likelihood was 30%, they might adjust their estimate to 32%. If the information was worse than expected – for example, if they had estimated 10% – then they tended to adjust their estimate much less, as if ignoring the data.”

These findings were consistent with some brain research that was also conducted. Researchers found that when people were presented information better than expected, there was high activity in the frontal lobes (suggesting that the participant was re-calculating their estimate). But when the information was worse than expected, there was much less activity in the frontal lobes, almost as if participants were disregarding the new information.

Dr. Sharot who led the study added:

    “Our study suggests that we pick and choose the information that we listen to. The more optimistic we are, the less likely we are to be influenced by negative information about the future. This can have benefits for our mental health, but there are obvious downsides. Many experts believe the financial crisis in 2008 was precipitated by analysts overestimating the performance of their assets even in the face of clear evidence to the contrary.”

I don’t wish to deride optimism, I think it’s incredibly important to being a flourishing human being. At the same time, I think it needs to be balanced and practical. Ignoring reality might bring us some temporary pleasure, but it can also hurt us badly in the long-run. We need to learn how to acknowledge the obstacles, risks, and costs that come with life, while still being confident and hopeful about our future.

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