CAMBRIDGE, Ma. — So much for optimism. Believing that the future or certain conditions will improve — particularly that others will come around to seeing things the same way we do — can lead us to inaction, a new study finds.
Researchers at Harvard and UC Berkeley conducted six related studies to explore both the prevalence of optimism among average people, and the consequences of keeping one’s glass half full.
One study, conducted online, asked participants to weigh in on nine unrelated topics — abortion, gay marriage, the NBA, climate change, ideology, party affiliation, President Trump, soft drinks, and phone preferences — while also providing insight on how they thought others would view the same topics.
The researchers found that the beliefs that individuals held on these topics correlated with how they thought others would perceive them, either in the now or later.
For example, 91 percent of those who favored easier access to abortion predicted that popularity for such a position would swell, compared to only 47 percent of those whose beliefs differed on the issue.
“It often seems that partisans believe they are so correct that others will eventually come to see the obviousness of their correctness,” says lead author Todd Rogers, a behavioral scientist at the Harvard Kennedy School, in a news release. “Ironically, our findings indicate that this belief in a favorable future may diminish the likelihood that people will take action to ensure that the favorable future becomes reality.”
Additional data from Dutch, British, Japanese, and Chinese individuals showed that the belief in a favorable future pervades across cultures.
This phenomenon is distinct from other cognitive biases, such as the false-consensus effect, the researchers found. Even the introduction of incentives, including ones of a financial nature, weren’t able to substantially reverse this cognitive bias.
Another experiment showed that this bias can have real-life implications. Voters were shown to be less likely to contribute to a likeminded political candidate if the individual was trailing in the polls.
“The most interesting aspect of this to me is how robust it is,” says Rogers. “This pattern of findings emerges for an unexpectedly diverse range of preferences, views, and beliefs – and it emerges across cultures. People biasedly believe that others will change in ways that align with their current preferences, views, and beliefs.”
Whether it causes us to stay in a toxic relationship or remain at a dead-end job, optimism isn’t always all it’s made out to be.
The study’s findings were published August 3 in the journal Psychological Science.