Unrealistic Optimism can be worse than Pessimism
Optimism can be a liability in some situations.
Posted Sep 10, 2018
It seems like all of the self-help industry is complicit in encouraging everyone to have a positive outlook and to grow their optimism. Having a “sunny disposition,” or positive affect, may go a long way in helping a person cope with the negative events in life, for sure. If we assume that the world is a good place overall, but that there are occasionally bumps in the road, a healthy dose of dispositional optimism can come in handy to keep us upbeat and moving forward.
However, if someone is somehow blind to the risks that they may face, their lack of preparedness or awareness of the risks inherent in any undertaking, they may experience much more psychological distress than a less optimistic person might. Optimism that flies in the face of hard logic and harsh reality is termed, “unrealistic optimism.”
According to researchers (Shepperd, Waters, Weinstein, Klein, 2015), there are two basic types of unrealistic optimism:
- Unrealistic absolute optimism: This is when you absolutely believe, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that your behavior won’t result in the negative outcomes that quantitative objective standards suggest you are likely to experience. For instance, ask a group of college seniors what they think their starting salary will be when they graduate and it’s likely that some of them are going to shoot way over what their actual education and experience level is likely to ever bring in financially.
- Unrealistic comparative optimism: This describes those people who believe that they will never be one of the “statistics” of those whose homes are robbed, who will suffer an accident within 1 mile of their home, and so on.
It’s not that unrealistic optimists are doing anything “wrong,” they are just not doing anymore more “right” than the dispositionally optimistic – or pessimistic – individuals around them. And this can lead to some upsetting outcomes that “positive thinking” gurus might not have thought about.
For instance, being unrealistically optimistic might lead you to believe that a potential opportunity is more of a “sure thing” than it really is. You might assume a “one in a million chance” that a drug is going to help you get over a challenging illness or that the Powerball is definitely going to roll in your favor. You may believe in a “chance” so strongly that when your health doesn’t improve or you realize you’ve wasted a week’s pay on lottery tickets, your disappointment and regret might be overwhelming. Not surprisingly, those who are dispositionally pessimistic or optimistic will likely experience disappointment that their luck wasn’t what they’d hoped, but they won’t experience the same level of negative reactions that an unrealistically optimistic person might.
When people are warned of the dangers of a behavior, such as the dangers of marijuana as a “gateway drug” or the likelihood of risky behaviors leading to negative consequences, the more unrealistically optimistic they are and the more emphatically they affirm, “That won’t happen to me!,” the greater the likelihood that it certainly will. Yes, the stronger your affirmation that you are somehow “different” and the greater your indifference to the facts, the greater you’ve probably amped up your chance of experiencing the detrimental effects of your choice. In one study, unrealistically optimistic people who had been warned about the dangers of communicable disease also were found to be the ones less likely to follow basic hygiene behaviors such as washing their hands. They aren’t just increasing their own risk of illness, they are also increasing the risk of those with whom they come into contact.
Of course, you cannot paint all “unrealistically optimistic” people with a single brush. There are times that being unrealistically optimistic – or optimistic in the face of danger – can be beneficial. In terms of medical settings, individuals who have come through a risky surgical procedure or survived a life-threatening illness may actually be wise to be highly optimistic. Researchers have found that these folks often take better care of themselves if they are optimistic that they can beat the odds than those who feel that there is little they can do to ensure a healthier life down the road.
When you’ve already begun to cope with a setback, and are taking steps to overcome obstacles or negative events, being highly optimistic can clearly be a benefit. However, when you’re blissfully indifferent to the risks of behavior, actions, and choices because you believe, with no basis on fact, that nothing bad can happen to you . . . that’s the time when your risk for negative outcomes may likely increase.
Some folks advise that you “Hope for the best, but expect the worst, and you’ll never be disappointed.” Perhaps the more appropriate suggestion is to maintain an optimistic disposition, don’t discount the risks of actions, and maintain a realistic perspective on what your capabilities actually are.
Shepperd, J. A., Waters, E. A., Weinstein, N. D., & Klein, W. M. P. (2015). A primer on unrealistic optimism. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 24(3), 232-237.