Optimism Bias, Ignoring Warning Signs

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Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

Why is it that otherwise intelligent people who know the health risks of smoking, eating meats heavy in fat, and the dangers of not exercising, continue to engage in these potentially deadly practices? Part of the answer to this question has to do with an unrealistic type of optimism based on the incorrect belief that “it can happen to you but not me.” For example, it is not a theory that smoking causes cancer but an established fact. Yet, there are people who persist in smoking cigarettes, cigars and pipes.

Tali Sharot, Author of The Optimism Bias, states that it has to do with the way the brain works. In effect, even in the face of clear evidence that there are dangers or reason for pessimism, people opt for optimism, dismissing the danger. This even happens with airline pilots, and anyone who has unrealistic expectations. There was a case where an Egyptian passenger plane crashed and killed everyone aboard, in sum, about 700 passengers and crew. The pilot was highly experienced and had an equally skilled crew on board. Nevertheless, the pilot ignored the panel readings because he was convinced the plane was flying upright when it was not. Ultimately, the plane crashed. This is not unusual in all aspects of life.


It is well know that the proverbial couch potato who sits and watches football games instead of getting exercise, is in danger of a heart attack. Despite this fact, many people persist in being couch potatoes. Once again, they do not believe that their avoidance of exercise can have any negative consequences. If others suffer heart attacks or strokes from a passive life style, they are certain that it has nothing to do with them.

The concept of optimism bias includes the way people view the future. In a variety of studies, when subjects are asked the likelihood of being successful compared to the majority of the population, they are sure that they will be more successful than the most people. This belief persists despite the fact that it is that they will be more successful than the average population. In other words, we all fit into the bell curve with most people falling into the average and only a few falling into the part of the curve having to do with great failure or great success.

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Logic and traffic accident statistics make it clear that, in point of fact, riding motor cycles is quite dangerous. Yet, a hard core number of people ride motor cycles. To make matters worse, based on statistics, is is recommended that cyclists wear helmits to protect their head in the event that an accident occurs. Nevertheless, anyone can observe these cyclists riding without helmits. It seems as though they are tempting fate.

Yet another example was the way in which the big financiers in business took great risks in how they invested money despite the fact that there were indicators that a collapse of the world financial system could occur with the threat of a world-wide recession. Most ignored the warning signals and ended up losing great fortunes when the markets collapsed. What is more, even the fact that the history of the Great Depression should have informed them, it was ignored. How and why? “It can’t happen to me.”

One last study involved football teams and their fans. Four hundred people were surveyed for 14 weeks on how their favorite team would do over the whole season. In effect, expressed optimism that their team would win at the start of the season and maintained that optimism even after their team had lost. Even though favorite teams won only 50% of the time, they were picked to win 69% of the time. People remained overly optimistic at the end of the season despite the actual record.

While it might seem that optimism bias is a bad thing it actually is not. As long as people believe they can succeed despite the odds being against them, they will work very hard and reach their goal. It’s just that there are categories of life where it makes no sense to ignore dangers that lie ahead.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

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