Unrealistic optimism, or are we too optimistic?

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Published: 15-10-2021

Last modified: 16-10-2021

Unrealistic optimism is a concept that is very well known in psychology. Many studies show that people are often characterized by unreasonably high optimism, which can also be seen in everyday life. We do not wear seat belts, we cycle without a helmet, we do not insure our apartments, we do not regularly attend medical examinations because we are convinced that everything bad happens only to other people and it will not happen to us.

American research (Weinstein, 1980) shows that many people not only believe that negative events are more likely to other people than themselves, but are also convinced that positive events are more likely to them than to others. Most Americans believe that they have a better chance than their peers of the same sex for a good job, a trip overseas, owning a home and living to over eighty years. However, there are intercultural differences in this matter. Poles are not that optimistic. Here, unrealistic optimism only concerns negative events. We believe that what is bad can only happen to others. But in the case of positive events, unlike Americans who say that they have a greater chance of them, Poles believe that they have a lower chance than other people of the same sex and age (Czapiński, 1998). So, according to many Poles, nothing positive or anything negative will happen to them in their lives.

Unrealistic optimism is very common in everyday life but fades away in some specific situations. Such situations are natural disasters. People, when asked shortly after the earthquake what the probability of it happening again, realistically assess the risk, although in the case of other negative events they are still convinced that it is more likely that it will happen to others than them (Burger , Palmer, 1992; Helweg-Larsen, 1999). It seems that a tragedy has to happen to us personally to make us believe that they do not only happen in the media … After the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, even the phenomenon of unrealistic pessimism (the so-called defensive pessimism) was observed. Many people felt they were more exposed to harmful radiation than others. Their illusion had some advantages, however. Pessimists were more likely than realists and optimists (and there was no difference between them) to take action that could prevent radiation-induced diseases. A greater percentage of pessimists than realists and optimists drank Lugol’s liquid, refrained from eating dairy products and spring vegetables, minimized staying outdoors and undertook other activities that could reduce the effects of radiation (Doliński, Gromski, & Zawisza, 1987).

Unrealistic optimism is lowered in depressive people (Czapiński, 1992). The worse the mood according to the depression scale, the lower the unrealistic optimism, but interestingly, even the most depressed people are optimistic in assessing the chances of various events in the future, so it seems that depression does not cause pessimism, but increases realism

References

  1. Weinstein, N. D. (1980). Unrealistic optimism about future life events. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 39(5), 806-820.
  2. Czapiński, J. (1998). Jakość życia Polaków w czasie zmiany systemowej. Warszawa: Instytut Studiów Społecznych UW.
  3. Burger, J. M., Palmer, M. L. (1992). Changes in and generalization of unrealistic optimism following experiences with stressful events – reactions to the 1989 California earthquake. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 18(1), 39-43.
  4. Helweg-Larsen, M. (1999). (The lack of) optimistic biases in response to the 1994 Northridge earthquake: The role of personal experience. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 21(2), 119-129.
  5. Doliński, D., Gromski, W., Zawisza, E. (1987). Unrealistic pessimism. The Journal of Social Psychology, 127(5), 511-516.
  6. Czapiński, J. (1992). Psychologia szczęścia. Warszawa: Akademos.

Author: Maja Kochanowska

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