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Optimism and Pessimism

Our "optimism bias" has blinded us to the grave danger we face. Nobody really wants to contemplate what the world will look like when our kids grow up. It's just too painful.
- PJMD San Anselmo, CA 9, comment on Climate Model Predicts West Antarctic Ice Sheet Could Melt Rapidly, Justin Gillis, NYT, 3/31/2016


Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, said he was running “because the world is falling apart.” Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, declared the United States “near an abyss.” On the left, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont says the economy has been “destroyed” for all but the wealthy few.

Presidential contenders are hardly alone in such bleak views. An April Gallup poll found that only 26 percent of Americans call themselves “satisfied” with “the way things are going” in the United States. It’s been this way for a while: January 2004, during the George W. Bush administration, was the last time a majority told Gallup they felt good about the nation’s course.
- Gregg Easterbrook, When Did Optimism Become Uncool?, NYT, May 12, 2016


Various data suggest that people do tend to be unrealistically optimistic about the future.
- Unrealistic Optimism About Future Life Events, Neil Weinstein, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1980, Vol. 39, No. 5, 806-820


A robust finding in social psychology is that people judge negative events as less likely to happen to themselves than to the average person, a behavior interpreted as showing that people are “unrealistically optimistic” in their judgments of risk concerning future life events. However, we demonstrate how unbiased responses can result in data patterns commonly interpreted as indicative of optimism for purely statistical reasons. Specifically, we show how extant data from unrealistic optimism studies investigating people’s comparative risk judgments are plagued by the statistical consequences of sampling constraints and the response scales used, in combination with the comparative rarity of truly negative events. We conclude that the presence of such statistical artifacts raises questions over the very existence of an optimistic bias about risk and implies that to the extent that such a bias exists, we know considerably less about its magnitude, mechanisms, and moderators than previously assumed.
-Unrealistic Optimism About Future Life Events: A Cautionary Note, Adam Harris and Ulrike Hahn, Psychological Review, 2011, Vol. 118, No. 1, 135-154



Humans expect positive events in the future even when there is no evidence to support such expectations. For example, people expect to live longer and be healthier than average[1], they underestimate their likelihood of getting a divorce[1], and overestimate their prospects for success on the job market[2].
1. Weinstein, N. D. Unrealistic optimism about future life events.J. Pers. Soc. Psychol.39,806–820 (1980).
2. Hoch, S. Conterfactual reasoning and accuracy in predicting personal events.J. Exp. Psychol.11,719–731 (1984)
- Sharot et al., Neural mechanisms mediating optimism bias, Nature, Nov. 2007


The Taliban are in retreat, the Afghan military is on the brink of assuming control of the country, and the government in Kabul is one step away from being able to provide security across the land. So three successive presidential administrations have said over 16 years about the war in Afghanistan.

Yet devastating attacks on villages, convoys, government offices and hotels continue.
- HELENE COOPER, Attacks Reveal What U.S. Won’t: Victory Remains Elusive in Afghanistan, NYT, JAN. 29, 2018


Exhibit A in this narrative is Walter Cronkite, the CBS News anchor, billed as the nation’s most trustworthy voice, who on Feb. 27, 1968, told his audience of millions that the war could not be won. Commentary like this was remarkable back then because of both custom and the Fairness Doctrine, a federal policy requiring broadcasters to remain neutral about the great questions of the day. ...
From the pinnacle of TV’s prime-time reach, he had descended to pronounce:
“To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe, in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past. To suggest we are on the edge of defeat is to yield to unreasonable pessimism. To say that were are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion.” ...
In fact, Cronkite was right. The war was not being won, nor would it be. ...
Cronkite had been a believer. He had no objection to the war on moral or even strategic grounds and for years had been faithfully reporting on his nightly broadcast the official accounts of American progress. ...
Initial reports from Saigon [about the Tet offensive] had exaggerated the significance of the surprise raids in that city. The attacks were alarming but ultimately inconsequential.... ...
The failed effort in Saigon was, according to official accounts, emblematic. This is the story Gen. William Westmoreland, the top American commander, told Cronkite. In a one-on-one interview weeks after the Tet offensive began, he insisted that what had happened in Saigon had happened throughout the country. The enemy had everywhere been routed. ...
But even as Westmoreland spoke, 400 miles north, American troops were locked in fierce combat in and around the city of Hue, which, unlike Saigon, the enemy had completely overrun. The fighting there was nowhere near over. House-to-house, block-to-block fighting there would grind on for 25 bloody days, destroying 80 percent of the city and leaving more than 10,000 dead.

Cronkite arrived in the middle of it and saw for himself that Westmoreland had been lying. ...
Reporters in Vietnam were not perfect. They were not completely unbiased — the horror of the war repelled many. But they told the truth more consistently than American officials....
- Mark Bowden, When Walter Cronkite Pronounced the War a ‘Stalemate’, NYT, FEB. 26, 2018



Beliefs about the future can be self-fulfilling or self-defeating. Belief that Hillary would win the presidential election probably ensured her defeat by disinclining voters who preferred her to Trump, but were certain of her victory and unhappy Sanders was not nominated, from voting for her. Moreover, the assumption that she would win appears to have led to the FBI's disclosure of further investigation into her emails just before the voting, which likely caused her to lose:

Then in late October, over the objection of top Justice Department officials, Mr. Comey sent a letter to Congress disclosing that agents were scrutinizing new evidence in the Clinton case. That evidence did not change the outcome of the inquiry, but Mrs. Clinton and many of her supporters blame Mr. Comey’s late disclosure for her defeat.

Mr. Comey has defended his actions, saying he would have faced criticism for any decision, so he opted to be transparent. F.B.I. officials have acknowledged that they made those decisions in part because they assumed Mrs. Clinton would win, and they worried about appearing to conceal information to help her.
- Matt Apuzzo, Nicholas Fandos and Charlie Savage, Comey Cited as ‘Insubordinate,’ but Report Finds No Bias in F.B.I. Decision to Clear Clinton, NYT, June 14, 2018








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