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The Optimism Bias

Posted on the 31 October 2011 by Candacemoody @candacemoody

I lost a dollar bet yesterday.  I bet my mom that the Jacksonville Jaguars would win the game, and they lost.  (The good thing about this football season is that, no matter what week you read this post, the first sentence will most likely still be true.) This is the fourth week I’ve taken the Jags to win, and the fourth week I’ve lost.  Yet, on Friday, when my (shark) mom asks me what I want, I’m almost sure to take the Jags for the win.  As it turns out, I’m not alone.

Tali Sharot write The Optimism Bias, a book on why humans almost always view the future as hopeful and sunny.  She has studied hundreds of subjects, young and old, and found that no matter the odds, we always believe that tomorrow will be better. We’re apparently hard wired that way.  “We hugely underestimate the likelihood of divorce, cancer and unemployment,” she writes.  “”We expect to be healthier than the average person and more successful than [our] peers.”

Sharot goes on to ask her readers to rate themselves in the following characteristics:

  • Getting along well with others
  • Leadership ability
  • Logical thinking
  • Driving ability

Go ahead – rate yourself.  Are you in the lower 25% of the U.S. population? The 25th -50th quartile?  The 50th – 75th quartile?  Or are you in the top 25%?

A 1970’s survey found that 85 percent of people rated themselves above average in getting along with people.   My own experience reveals that roughly 100 percent of drivers rate themselves as above average. We know that that’s impossible.  The Bell curve (aka Normal Distribution) teaches us that 50 percent of us, are, by definition, average.  Yet we persist in rating ourselves higher than average.  Interestingly, while we can’t identify our own biases, we’re excellent in perceiving them in someone else.  That sentence alone explains a lot of woe in the human condition.  But that’s another post.

The bias in rating ourselves as above average may explain why we take rejection so personally when we’re in a job search.  It’s not just losing the opportunity; we’re confused and saddened by the company’s inability to recognize standout talent when they see it.

Another trick our brain plays on us is called “choice blindness blindness.”  Sharot describes this as the phenomenon wherein we think we’re making a rational choice, but really can’t tell the difference.  In one supermarket taste test, for instance, shoppers were asked to choose the jam they preferred – was it the blue jar or the red jar?  Shoppers made the choice, then were given the opportunity to taste their choice again and describe why they liked it.  What they didn’t know was that the testers had substituted the jam they didn’t choose for the winner.  Almost none of the shoppers were able to recognize the swap; they happily gave several reasons why this jam was superior to the one they’d rejected.   Of course, they were actually describing the rejected jam as they said things like “this one is less obviously sweet.”

Sharot’s point is that we may be wasting a lot of time carefully justifying choices.  When people were asked to rationalize the reasons they chose a specific art poster for their home, they scored lower in satisfaction months later than people who’d made a quick, unthinking choice.  In other words, you may think you have great, well thought out reasons for taking a job or deciding on a course of action.  The truth is, you might be better off sometimes to flip a coin.

Why is more thinking less helpful?  It may be because we focus on things we can articulate, instead of what will matter more in the long run, but be harder to understand or say.  Whatever the reasons, our bias toward thinking we’re smart is hard to overcome.

Meanwhile, I’ve studied the stats against our upcoming opponents, and I’m taking the Jags to win by three.  Can I borrow a dollar?


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