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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



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



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