Shock, horror! People aren’t natural optimists after all, study finds

© Luke MacGregor
If you tend to look at life in a ‘glass half full’ sort of way, you may be in the minority. The belief that people usually view the future optimistically may be based on flawed research, according to a new study.

Experts have believed for decades that most people experience ‘irrational optimism bias,’ meaning they naturally expect good things to happen in the future and underestimate the possibility of negative outcomes.

But after re-assessing previous evidence, scientists now say that there was no basis to claim such positivity is fundamental to human psychology. Specifically, they believe prior studies have generated data patterns that looked like people are being overly optimistic, when in fact no such bias existed.

In order to test whether previous conclusions were factual, scientists at University College London (UCL) used computer simulations designed to behave in a completely rational way when faced with good or bad news.

Although the machines were incapable of optimism and unable to show bias, they produced the same data patterns from previous studies, which researchers had falsely interpreted as showing evidence of optimism.

“Previous studies, which have used flawed methodologies to claim that people are optimistic across all situations and that this bias is ‘normal,’ are now in serious doubt. We need to look for new ways of studying optimism bias to establish whether it is a universal feature of human cognition or not,” said Dr. Adam Harris of UCL.

Punit Shah from the MRC Social, Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry (SGDP) Centre at King’s College London also noted that while people can certainly be optimistic in singular situations, that does not serve as evidence to prove that people are optimistic overall.

“There is ample evidence for optimism bias in various real-world situations - England football fans for example - but these instances simply show that certain people might be optimistic in certain situations; not that they are generally optimistic,” Shah said.

Noting that the assumption of irrational optimism bias is currently being used by the British government to guide infrastructure projects, Harris stressed that the assumption needs to be re-evaluated.

“This assumption that people are optimistically biased is being used to guide large infrastructure projects, with the aim of managing expectations around how much projects will cost and how long they will take to complete. Our research supports a re-examination of optimism bias before allowing it to guide clinical research and policy,” he said.

The research was published in the journal Cognitive Psychology on Tuesday.