The Optimism Bias


I lost a dollar bet yesterday.  I bet my mom that the Jacksonville Jaguars would win the game, and they lost.  (The good thing about this football season is that, no matter what week you read this post, the first sentence will most likely still be true.) This is the fourth week I’ve taken the Jags to win, and the fourth week I’ve lost.  Yet, on Friday, when my (shark) mom asks me what I want, I’m almost sure to take the Jags for the win.  As it turns out, I’m not alone.

Tali Sharot write The Optimism Bias, a book on why humans almost always view the future as hopeful and sunny.  She has studied hundreds of subjects, young and old, and found that no matter the odds, we always believe that tomorrow will be better. We’re apparently hard wired that way.  “We hugely underestimate the likelihood of divorce, cancer and unemployment,” she writes.  “”We expect to be healthier than the average person and more successful than [our] peers.”

Sharot goes on to ask her readers to rate themselves in the following characteristics:

  • Getting along well with others
  • Leadership ability
  • Logical thinking
  • Driving ability

Go ahead – rate yourself.  Are you in the lower 25% of the U.S. population? The 25th -50th quartile?  The 50th – 75th quartile?  Or are you in the top 25%?

A 1970’s survey found that 85 percent of people rated themselves above average in getting along with people.   My own experience reveals that roughly 100 percent of drivers rate themselves as above average. We know that that’s impossible.  The Bell curve (aka Normal Distribution) teaches us that 50 percent of us, are, by definition, average.  Yet we persist in rating ourselves higher than average.  Interestingly, while we can’t identify our own biases, we’re excellent in perceiving them in someone else.  That sentence alone explains a lot of woe in the human condition.  But that’s another post.

The bias in rating ourselves as above average may explain why we take rejection so personally when we’re in a job search.  It’s not just losing the opportunity; we’re confused and saddened by the company’s inability to recognize standout talent when they see it.

Another trick our brain plays on us is called “choice blindness blindness.”  Sharot describes this as the phenomenon wherein we think we’re making a rational choice, but really can’t tell the difference.  In one supermarket taste test, for instance, shoppers were asked to choose the jam they preferred – was it the blue jar or the red jar?  Shoppers made the choice, then were given the opportunity to taste their choice again and describe why they liked it.  What they didn’t know was that the testers had substituted the jam they didn’t choose for the winner.  Almost none of the shoppers were able to recognize the swap; they happily gave several reasons why this jam was superior to the one they’d rejected.   Of course, they were actually describing the rejected jam as they said things like “this one is less obviously sweet.”

Sharot’s point is that we may be wasting a lot of time carefully justifying choices.  When people were asked to rationalize the reasons they chose a specific art poster for their home, they scored lower in satisfaction months later than people who’d made a quick, unthinking choice.  In other words, you may think you have great, well thought out reasons for taking a job or deciding on a course of action.  The truth is, you might be better off sometimes to flip a coin.

Why is more thinking less helpful?  It may be because we focus on things we can articulate, instead of what will matter more in the long run, but be harder to understand or say.  Whatever the reasons, our bias toward thinking we’re smart is hard to overcome.

Meanwhile, I’ve studied the stats against our upcoming opponents, and I’m taking the Jags to win by three.  Can I borrow a dollar?

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3 thoughts on “The Optimism Bias

  1. You’re a college graduate and a management professional, if I am correct. Therefore you are better qualified to question your post than I am, but forgive me if I try:

    1.) Before people are asked to rate themselves, are they given a well-defined criteria, along with examples a person can use for real-life comparison, before answering the question? Or are they simply asked, for example, “How do you rate yourself in getting along with people?”, followed by A, B, C, and D groupings?

    2.) Is it explained before questioning for clarity’s sake, that the 50th. percentile is the median point, if I recall correctly, so that to rank above it, you MUST get along better with people, than half the people you meet?

    Now, if you have done # 1, everyone should be replying using the same definitition criteria as the surveyor. If you have done # 2, then hopefully you have eliminated a “misunderstanding bias.” Now, everyone should understand unless they objectively fit the well-defined criteria of # 1, their only possible reply should always be the 25th -50th quartile group.

    I posit that most such surveys give cursory attention to # 1 and # 2, with little follow-up to verify people surveyed fully understand what they are being asked to do in these self-ratings, thus creating the bias you note in your post. In other words, the surveyor tends to be at fault, more than the people surveyed.

    Another thing which goes unaccounted for in such surveys is the culture of social customs we tend to adhere to. “Getting along” is to be a good citizen and good human being. “Not getting along” is being a bad citizen and bad human being, in terms of our social mental construct. If you see yourself as the latter, society teaches you that you need to reform to conform to being a “good person.” Family, church, school, the workplace (team player, for example), and society encourages a “go along to get along” attitude. This bias takes great effort to overcome, with a potential negative self-image being the result.

    To a greater or lesser degree the same holds true for “leadership ability” (viewed as positive, to be strived for, and to be developed with-in ones self); “logical thinking” (often called “common sense” it is so revered in society and to lack “common sense” is to be a fool, which is undesirable); and “driving ability” (we have a license that proves we have good driving ability, each day we do not cause an accident re-enforces our “good” driving ability, and doggone it, those other 3 areas just re-enforce our belief that we are always better.) By the way, I’ve always called myself a lousy driver and hate to drive, so 🙂 I rated myself in the bottom percentile. When on the road, I notice I am NOT alone. That’s my positive re-enforcement that I am right, even if that too, is biased thinking.

    I would rather a UNF, JU, or FSC Professor, more learned than I, would come along to explain all this in fewer words, but they must be pontificating to reluctant students on the vagaries of disagreeing with an expert, like yourself and Tali Sharot.

    (By the way, many years ago, when Mark Brunell was still the Jaguars QB, I discovered when the Jaguars scored 22 points or more a game, they tended to win. Until the Jaguars offense can generate 22 points or more in a game, winning will be the exception, not the rule. Also recall, the team whose defense has allowed the fewest points during the season tends to win. I too will sometimes try to predict scores and blowouts, but rarely are these founded on facts. Think you have a shot at winning a dollar if you find someone who will take the Colts over the Jaguars. Good luck!)

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    • Thanks, as always, for your readership and for taking the time to comment. I’m writing with tongue in cheek of course, and don’t claim to endorse or even understand the scientific method used when asking people to rate themselves. My point was that people tend to perceive bias in others more clearly than in themselves – we’re all guilty of magical thinking at some point in our lives.

      I agree that we learn that good qualities like leadership are desirable and hence the opposite (not a leader) is less so. Because a quality like leadership is abstract, I think it would be much more interesting to have the individual define why they were or were not above average in this quality, rather than the one giving the survey, as you suggest. I might say “I’m above average as a leader because I make decisions quickly and manage crisis situations well.” You might say, “I’m above average because I take time to think through every decision carefully.” And we might both be right.

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  2. I am sure Tali Sharot’s book, The Optimism Bias, is an interesting read, so I do not wish to discourage anyone from reading her book. She is a trained expert with many years of experience. I’ve learned a lot from experts!

    However, I wonder if her book fails to refute my suggestion that society enforces a mode of thinking on us (bias), which after thousands of years, may explain the “hard-wired” effect she found? I believe it has also been found that a pessimist’s view of reality is more accurate than an optimist’s view of reality. Yet, which person do you prefer to be around? (I thought so!) Don’t we live in a real world? Yet, social beings beat those blasted, logical, Vulcans. Does not compute!!!

    With tongue-in-cheek, I’ll be on my way. Don’t want to end up part of the Borg Collective. Live long and prosper!

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