April 17, 2024

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Why too much optimism is bad for you

Why too much optimism is bad for you

“Maybe the coronavirus won't make me that sick. Will we solve global warming in time and war in Europe? That will never happen.” The more uncertainty and fear, the more we engage in wishful thinking: we become too optimistic, which sometimes causes us not to take action.

It appears from research Led by the University of Amsterdam (UvA). “People are not seekers of pure truth. Many beliefs are influenced by emotions and driven by what is pleasant or comforting, such as belief in an afterlife or optimism about your health,” says Joel van der Wiele, professor of economic psychology at UvA.

Measuring self-deception
He and his colleagues studied whether people become overly optimistic when they face setbacks. “So far, there are no studies that provide clear evidence of wishful thinking. Many studies contradict this idea,” says neuroeconomics professor Jan Engelmann. “But they mainly focus on positive outcomes like winning the lottery. We also looked at how negative events influence overly positive beliefs.

Self-deception and its causes are difficult to study in the real world. That's why the researchers conducted a series of experiments with more than 1,700 participants in the lab and online. Participants were briefly shown different patterns, such as colored dots or lines in all directions. Then they had to say what kind of pattern they saw.

Some patterns have been linked to a small electric shock in a laboratory or losing money online to induce fear. “We wanted to see whether people made more errors in recognizing patterns associated with a negative outcome, thinking it was actually a harmless pattern. That would be an indication of wishful thinking,” van der Wiele explains.

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His prediction came true: Participants were less likely to correct a pattern that had caused shock or financial loss. “Participants tended to see a pattern that aligned with what they found most desirable,” says Engelman. “Previous research has looked at wishful thinking related to positive outcomes and found mixed results. Our study clearly shows that fear of a potential outcome leads to wishful thinking.

Think more realistically
The researchers then tried to get people to think more realistically, for example, by making the patterns easier. “Reducing uncertainty actually led to less wishful thinking.” Next, participants were offered a higher reward for recognizing the correct patterns, but this had little effect unless participants could gather more evidence about the exact pattern they were shown. “If people had more time to find the clues and got a better reward for the correct answer, they would become more realistic,” says Engelman. Finally, negative outcomes were also replaced by positive outcomes. Then the wish disappeared completely. This indicates that reducing negative emotions can alleviate excessive optimism.

Wishful thinking is important
Now it seems like it would be better if we all just became very realistic and avoided all this wishful thinking as much as possible, but that is not the case. “Wishful thinking is important for people to deal with fear of future events,” says Engelman. The problem arises when too much optimism prevents people from gathering necessary information or taking action.

“People can become too optimistic when things are uncertain. We see this happening with climate change, when financial markets fluctuate and even with their health when people don't go to the doctor because they think everything is fine. That's why we need to know when it's wishful thinking.” What is beneficial and when is it harmful?

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