80% Chance of Sun

Recently, I watched a TED talk given by Tali Sharot, Ph.D., a researcher who studies “The Optimism Bias.”  In a nutshell, this bias is “a tendency to overestimate our likelihood of experiencing good events in our lives, and a tendency to underestimate our likelihood of experiencing bad events.”  You can watch Dr. Sharot’s TED talk hereChance-of-SunIt is a very personal bias, meaning that individuals will be quite optimistic about their own lives and their family members’ lives, but not the lives of strangers or society at large.  According to Dr. Sharot, 80% of the population has the bias and is blissfully unaware of it.

Jill and I spoke at Cal State Northridge a few weeks ago to a group of students studying gerontology, and we got to see the optimism bias in action firsthand.  We asked the students to call out words that described how they would be when they were “old”.  We heard everything from “healthy” and “adventurous” to “wealthy” and “smart.”  When we asked them to call out words that described old people, we heard things like, “slow,” “depressed,” “wrinkly,” and “manipulative.”  It was fascinating and it reminded me of my fiancé.  In spite of losing his father to cancer and watching his mother struggle with various health challenges, he is convinced that he will not ever have health challenges; he will never get sick and he will be able to ride his road bike until he is ancient.  He has decided that when he is feels the time is right (because he is in charge, after all), he will simply ride off a cliff, thereby bringing his life to a swift and thrilling end.  This plan made me crazy until I learned about the bias.

According to Dr. Sharot, the optimism bias has distinct benefits and drawbacks.  On one hand it enhances wellbeing: a bright future reduces stress and anxiety.  It also positively impacts both subjective and objective reality, meaning that those positive thoughts become self-fulfilling prophecies.  On the flip side, being overly optimistic can lead to risky behavior and faulty planning.

The key question is how to remain hopeful in the face of reality.  She says the bottom line is knowledge; knowing about the optimism bias doesn’t mean it will go away, but it does mean that you can factor it in when you notice yourself choosing not to plan in favor of thinking you are immune to negative events.   I must confess that even in the face of all that I learn in my studies and see in my work, I have this feeling that the really “bad stuff” isn’t going to happen to me, either….  That said, I have a contingency plan in place.  In the meantime, my fiancé is out riding his bike.


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