Pessimism prevails? Study casts doubt on theory that people are naturally optimistic

BATH, United Kingdom — Do you believe most people navigate life wearing rose-tinted glasses? In other words, do people naturally expect good things in their life and shoo away the thought of negative events? The theory that most people have a bias towards thinking optimistically is a common one. For instance, the U.K. government even accounts for this supposed bias while planning large infrastructure projects. Now, however, new research is calling the claim into serious question. In fact, researchers from the University of Bath say people may be naturally pessimistic after all.

People have blamed “irrational optimism bias” for any number of issues over the years, including financial crises, climate change inaction, and on an individual level, a person’s failure to properly look after their health. When you’re always expecting things to go your way, why plan for the worst case scenario?

‘False positives’ for optimism?

Research by a team from the University of Bath, University College London, and Birkbeck-University of London may end up changing the accepted validity of optimism bias. The study uncovers serious flaws in the previous research that supported this idea over the years. Researchers explain that those studies erroneously generated “false positives,” or data patterns that falsely suggest people are being overly-optimistic, when in reality no such bias exists.

The team conducted several experiments to reach these conclusions, all of which use “the update method.” First, the approach asks participants to estimate their odds of experiencing a life event. Next, each person re-assesses their chances after finding out the average person’s actual odds of experiencing that event.

Most of the time, scientists study this effect with negative events, such as receiving a diagnosis for a serious illness or getting a divorce. This time around, though, study authors removed the negative aspect of the question, choosing to ask about more emotionally-neutral scenarios. For example, the odds of the next passing car being the color red.

Is measuring optimism impossible?

After switching to more neutral topics, participants across the board still showed an optimistic tendency. In light of these findings, the researchers believe the methods used in previous research claiming to prove optimism bias were invalid.

“Our experiments show that the method commonly used to evidence such optimism is flawed, giving rise to ‘optimistic’ belief updating where optimism is not possible. This is not to say that optimism bias cannot exist in the real world, but that new improved methods are needed. Essentially, current methods return false positives,” says lead researcher Jason Burton from Birkbeck in a university release.

“There is of course evidence for optimism in certain situations, but that is not to say that humans are generally optimistic. Researchers and policy makers have made careers based on the idea of optimism bias, but it is time to reconsider evidence for this psychological phenomenon,” adds co-researcher Punit Shah, Associate Professor from Bath’s department of Psychology.

Optimism bias is continually being used to guide large government projects, seemingly to manage projections about the time and financial costs of project. Our latest research, building on our previous research, supports a re-examination of optimism bias before it guides policy any further,” he concludes.

The study appears in the journal Cognition.