Turn That Smile Upside Down
I’ll stop being a cynic just as soon as science stops proving me right. The Daily Beast has an article that summarizes the results of a new study. One which, once again, concludes that blind optimism is dangerous for yourself and others:
In contrast to plain optimism, the unrealistic kind characterizes people who continue to believe there will be a rosy outcome despite clear evidence and even personal experience to the contrary. While reasonable optimism serves us well—it lowers stress and anxiety, and can even reduce the risk of developing various diseases and help us recover faster, according to studies like this one—the unrealistic kind can backfire badly. It’s part of why people save too little for retirement (“things will work out somehow”), fail to use sunscreen (“skin cancer? no way”), and don’t make prenuptial agreements (most people estimate their risk of divorce as zero percent.)
Finally, science has proven what we all were thinking: that blind optimists actively ignore dissenting information and do not justify their world view with facts. Volunteers in the study were asked to estimate the likelihood of an unfortunate event befalling them. Then they were shown the actual probability and asked to revise their estimates.
The good news is that people were not completely incapable of learning: they revised their estimates of the probability that they would suffer life’s various pitfalls—but only if they had overestimated that probability. In other words, if they had predicted that their likelihood of developing cancer was 40 percent, but learned that the lifetime risk is in fact 30 percent, they adjusted their estimate to a more reasonable 32 percent. But if they had underestimated the chance of falling victim to one of these incidents—saying they had a 10 percent risk of being robbed when in fact the chance is 20 percent—they basically stuck with their original guess.
The article raises but doesn’t answer the question of how these people are still alive. How does a blind optimist survive in the wild? “Oh please, there’s no way that tiger is gonna maul me.” Shouldn’t these people all be dead by now? I guess we’ll have to wait for the next study. But until science can find a positive use for irrational optimism, I suggest something that’s never failed me in tough times: