Caught this interesting discussion on the Optimism Bias from Tali Sharot’s lecture at the RSA (do listen to the full thing if you have a spare 25mins whilst tidying the house or save it to your smartphone for the commute). Some thoughts to chew on for your campaigns and projects - we wear rose tinted glasses when predicting the future, we’re less likely to factor in information that suggests a more negative future than our own prediction and even being aware of our own optimism biases doesn’t stop us from believing this illusion (but it does help us plan better)!
- Underestimate chances of experiencing negative events: getting a divorce, developing skin cancer, being in an accident, being unemployed…
- Overestimate chances of experiencing positive events: financial security, achieving better than average results, having a long lasting relationship…
There are benefits to thinking this way…some psychologists even think that it may be crucial to our existence. It gives us the hope and faith to persue our goals in the face of adversity
But the bias can also get us in trouble…read more below:
You can immediately see the policy implications of people thinking that they are less likely to be at risk than the average person from diseases, accidents, family breakdown…
There’s something around making things ‘real’ - if we can’t imagine something happening it’s hard to think it will actually happen. So what happens when people are given information that contradicts their optimism bias (think behaviour change campaigns focusing on education and information) - Tali Sharot thinks it gets interesting here and that we are wearing rose-tinted glasses!
Can the optimism bias be challenged with ‘bad news’ - well, it seems maybe not. An example Sharot gives in her RSA lecture goes something like the below (there also seems to be an anchoring effect going on here):
- person A - How likely are you to suffer from cancer?
- person B - 10%
- person A - Actually, it’s more like 30%, what would you consider your chance suffering from cancer to be now that you know that?
- person B - about 11%
Interestingly, people are more likely to absorb information that is ‘optimistic’ and adjust their predictions accordingly
Brain scan studies suggest that when people learn, “their neurons faithfully encode desirable information that can enhance optimism but fail at incorporating unexpectedly undesirable information”. Pessimists stand out against this set of behaviours - in fact, it could be argued that ‘pessimists’ are actually ‘realists’ as they have a much more accurate perception of future events!
So what does this mean for comms and policy?
- Well there seems to be some interesting food for thought for campaigns that focus on highlighting the danger and risk of partaking in certain activities - people have a tendancy to think: ‘It wont be me’
- Unfortunately in her lecture Sharot shied away from suggesting policy implications, maybe her book reveals more? She also highlights at the end of this article that they are exploring how to reduce and enhance the optimism using biological measures - so guess we’ll have to wait and see!
- Budget planning is being reconsidered by our government, ensuring that extra contingency is built into intiatives (think also about your wedding plans and diy budgets)
- A thought I’d like to explore more: I wonder if putting a positive spin on things would make any difference? So instead of ‘how likely do you think you are to develop skin cancer? would ‘how much do you think you could reduce your chance of skin cancer by wearing skin cream?’ and then a positive stat to reinforce the optimism bias….would be interested to know thoughts and knowledge of any research (plus other ideas for overcoming the optimism bias!)