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States' Rights Doesn’t Mean Your State Is Always Right

A Personal Perspective: The optimistic bias and optimism gaps.

Key points

  • The optimistic bias refers to the belief that negative events are more likely to happen to others than to us.
  • The optimism gap describes our tendency to be more positive about our own circumstances or community than we are about unfamiliar settings.
  • It is adaptive to trust in our own well-being, but not to automatically make false assumptions about unfamiliar people or places.

The optimistic bias is a psychological theory that accounts for the fact that even though we know that bad things can happen, we tend to downplay the chances that they will happen to us. For example, teenagers often make risky behavioral choices because they don’t believe they will be the ones to get in a car crash or overdoes on a substance.

Although we may reduce overt risk-taking as we age, many of us still assume that we have more control over our own well-being than we actually do. Seventy-five percent of Americans believe they are better than average drivers, millions of us use our lucky numbers when buying lottery tickets, and regardless of where we live, we will rank our own neighborhoods as better or safer than places we have never been.

This “illusion of control” is also related to our perceptions of well-being. Polls show that people consistently report that their future is brighter than that of the country. This optimism gap has been well documented in the psychological literature and is probably why we can get up and face a potentially dangerous world every day.

However, assuming that things we are familiar with are safer than those we aren’t can also be a problem. It may cause us to reject technological changes that will actually make our lives easier and limit our willingness to explore some of the pleasures of life, including trying new food, listening to different types of music, and traveling.

It can also cause us to maintain stereotypes in the face of disconfirming information and to judge people based on unfounded assumptions. Of course, these cognitive tendencies are nothing new. Humans have a long history of fighting over resources, religious or philosophical differences, and unjustified prejudice. Certainly, Americans know that we rarely all agree with each other and that some of these differences can be predicted based on the regions we live in and the states we call home.

But the Coronavirus pandemic, our current polarized political atmosphere, and the media echo chamber we live in are again causing some specific tears in the fabric of our “United” States. Over the past two and half years, breathless newscasters have reported coronavirus rates by state as though they were sports scores. People in conservative states railed against the mask and social distancing mandates, and those in liberal states complained about how socially unethical others were. In the meantime, the virus spread, mutated, and killed over a million Americans.

But, did significant policy differences really matter? As of July 2022, the largely conservative southern state of Mississippi had the most covid related deaths per 100,000 people in the country but second in line was the southwestern, democrat-leaning state of Arizona. Texas, a stalwart conservative state, home to the Bush family dynasty, and Massachusetts, a stalwart liberal state home to the Kennedy family dynasty, had exactly the same number of Covid-related deaths per 100,000 people.

And it’s not just how we handled the pandemic causing us to judge entire states as wanting. When topics including critical race theory, gay marriage, the legalization of marijuana, and abortion rights come up, it can be easy to denigrate the entire state if we don’t like their policies. I was born and raised in Southern California but have lived in Texas since 1994.

When we moved from San Diego to San Antonio, I saw how deeply these two states misunderstand each other. Friends in California acted like we were moving to a backward settlement in a covered wagon. When we got to Texas, people asked how we could live out there with all those earthquakes and “crazy” people. In most cases, the people with the strongest opinions had never visited the state they despised.

Over the years, I have come to appreciate both states. The weather in Southern California is stellar. The cost of living in San Antonio enabled us to live comfortably while still having enough money to spend time in California during the summer.

But the negative regional assumptions persist. Following the recent Supreme Court decision on abortion, I have heard people I know and like argue that there should be a nationwide boycott of Texas and that California should secede from the country altogether. I am not in favor of either of those positions. Politically, my two home cities are virtually identical. In the most recent presidential election, San Antonio voted 58.2 percent Democrat, and San Diego went 60.2 percent.

Of course, the politics of our states and the electoral college meant that our votes counted differently. But that is a political, not an ideological, problem. We can argue about how to improve our political process but making assumptions about people and entire states based on media portrayals, fear, and stereotypes might make us feel better, but it isn’t accurate.

We all know there are people in our communities who hold extreme views, but we also see the kindness and humanity in our midst. Since our very founding, the United States has experienced tension between states, but our breadth and diversity have also made this country so successful. Rather than attacking people, we don’t even know this might be a good time to spend more time listening, communicating, identifying common goals, and solving problems regardless of where we live.

We all want to feel safe and in control in our communities, but that doesn’t mean we have to view everyone else with fear and distrust. I recommend that y’all hop on the 10 Freeway and get to know some people in that other state!


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