“No matter who they are and what they are trying to do, we find that successful people not only have confidence that they will eventually succeed, but are equally confident that they will have a tough time getting there.” — Heidi Grant Halvorson, “Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals” author
By Molly Rose Teuke
“We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are.” — Anaïs Nin, writer
When you think about the world around you and how you respond to it, do you imagine an objective reality? You may pride yourself on objective, rational thought and sensible behaviors, yet, according to the field of behavioral economics (mere decades old), it turns out you probably aren’t all that objective or rational.
Optimism is at the root of much flawed thinking and flawed behavior. When you’re surprised your project, relationship or even your life in general isn’t going as well as planned, chances are that unbridled optimism bias is the cause.
Errors and Illusions
Your brain likes shortcuts because they conserve energy and reduce effort. But shortcuts in thinking — unconscious mental biases — can lead you to faulty conclusions and irrational, disadvantageous behaviors. In other words, they can make you think that everything is going to go smoothly, even when it’s not likely. Daniel Kahneman, who won a Nobel Memorial Prize for the work the late Amos Tversky and he did in behavioral economics, calls these mental biases “cognitive errors.”
In Kahneman’s 2011 book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” he describes System 1 (fast) and System 2 (slow) thinking. System 1 relies on a quick, intuitive response. It makes you feel good in the moment because it’s easy and feels right. In reality, it makes you more prone to cognitive error, which could lead to results that aren’t what you intended. In contrast, System 2 thinking requires that you think about your thinking, creating an awareness that can reduce cognitive error. Tversky and Kahneman say System 1 mental errors are predictable and preventable, not to say that they’re easy to predict or prevent, though. Most of the time, you aren’t even aware of your biases, much less able to overcome them.
Let’s look at a cognitive error you actually stand a chance of mitigating — one so common it has its own colloquial expression — looking at the world through rose-colored glasses.
At its core, optimism bias is a tendency to overestimate the positive events that are going to happen to you and underestimate the bad. If you’re like the 80% of humans who experience optimism bias, you operate under any number of mistaken beliefs. You believe you’re going to get into the best university, graduate at the top of your class, get a better job and make more money than the average college graduate. You believe you’re going to marry well, never divorce and have the perfect number of children who turn out to be exceptionally gifted. Along the way, you believe you’re going to have better health, experience fewer health crises like cancer or a heart attack, and live longer than the average American adult. You believe your vacations are going to be far more pleasant than the average vacation and, by the way, you’re not going to get COVID.
Tali Sharot, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at University College London, calls optimism bias a cognitive illusion. “We are more optimistic than realistic, but we are oblivious to the fact,” she said in a 2012 TED Talk (which can be accessed at ted.com/talks/tali_sharot_the_optimism_bias?language=en). “And it doesn’t mean that we think things will magically turn out OK, but rather that we have the unique ability to make it so.”
Another facet of optimism bias is the illusion that you’re better at most things than most people. You consider yourself above average at getting along with others, being a good driver, saving money, and being attractive or honest. But we can’t all be above average. Someone has to be average or even below average, and chances are that someone is you, at least at some things.
Is optimism bias a bad thing? Not necessarily. It’s often quite useful. If you are optimistic, you are likely to be happier and healthier, largely because you have a greater sense of your own agency in how your life is turning out. Optimism is a self-fulfilling prophecy. As Sharot points out, optimism changes not just your subjective reality, but your objective reality, too, because it changes how you approach things. Optimism stirs you to try harder because you feel you’re in control.
Putting Optimism to Work
Managing your optimism is useful, too. Failure to achieve your goals is more often a failure of imagination than of effort. If you engage only in optimism, you are less likely to achieve your goal than if you imagine and prepare for the negative things that may hinder your path to success. In her 2012 book, “Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals,” Heidi Grant Halvorson says this is true of any goal you may desire. “No matter who they are and what they are trying to do,” she writes, “we find that successful people not only have confidence that they will eventually succeed, but are equally confident that they will have a tough time getting there.”
Believing your journey is going to be easy, on the other hand, can make you more likely to give up when the going gets tough.
Thinking about a desired future in the context of a present (possibly challenging) reality is called “mental contrasting.” The key is having enough realistic optimism to believe you can achieve that future, while at the same time being able to imagine the roadblocks. As Halvorson says, “Mental contrasting turns wishes and daydreams into reality, by bringing into focus what you will need to do to make it happen.”
When you set a goal for yourself, realize that those rose-colored glasses are important, but they don’t let you see the whole picture. When you want to achieve something that’s important to you, notice your optimism bias and take the time to do a reality check. The trick, says Halvorson, is to think both positively and realistically about your goal.
There’s an ingenious tool for managing optimism bias. It’s called “implementation intention.” This tool, developed by New York University’s goal guru Peter Gollwitzer, helps you anticipate the points where you might falter in your goal journey and think through an action plan to move past them. For example, let’s say you’re trying to get a job and rejection letters are making it hard to stay motivated (even though you could have reasonably expected to receive some). An implementation intention may sound like, “I know there are lot of qualified applicants out there, so for every rejection letter I get, I will send out another application.” By anticipating rejection letters and committing to implement a specific action when they arrive, you give yourself a path forward even when you’re discouraged.
“Because optimism bias can be both a blessing and a risk, you should be both happy and wary if you are temperamentally optimistic,” says Kahneman. Believe with all your heart that you’re going to succeed, but remain vigilant about reality. Enjoy the benefits of your rose-colored glasses, but don’t be blinded by, well, blind optimism.