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The Barefoot Corporate Warrior: The Optimism Bias

Image source: IN Noosa Magazine

Is it a good thing to be born with the glass half full?

Apparently, if you are human you are a born optimist. No, really!

This is despite many people who label themselves and others as pessimists. Even pessimists are, in fact, optimists. Confused, incredulous?

People who know me have regularly over the years labelled me an optimist. I have worn this label with some pride and enthusiasm. However, it now appears “optimism cometh before a fall” as there is a healthy optimism and a not-so-healthy optimism which, in extreme cases can lead to risky and perhaps life-threatening behaviours.

Optimism, it seems, can be positive but also negative. Counter-intuitive?

I have recently become aware of a human trait which psychologists are very interested in: the Optimism Bias.

It seems that research is showing that humans are genetically programmed to believe, even if this belief is irrational, that things will somehow work out or that all those bad things which happen in the world are actually destined forthe other guy (or gal).

And this is a most useful thing, of course. Optimism can positively influence human health, economies and the movement of civilisations and historical events. It has propelled us “walking apes” to achieve myriad of breakthroughs which have improved our lives through the ages.

Moreover, researchers have found that this bias crosses all differences of race, wealth, education and religion. So, it seems that to be human is to be optimistic.

Tests have been devised to determine whether people are “extreme” optimists and therefore prone to risky or poor decision-making.

Research has discovered that when you ask people to rate their chance of, say, contracting cancer, a majority underrate against the probability risk and the extreme optimists massively underestimate their chance. This type of finding flows across similar questions in many areas.

And while it might seem instinctively obvious that being optimistic is better than being pessimistic for survival and progress, there is a danger to optimism, a risk that rose-coloured glasses can lead to disastrous or unintended consequences which we may regret in hindsight.

This is because we may go into potentially risky situations or circumstances blind to the dangers or relying unrealistically on our own capabilities and instincts to meet a challenge when the truth is we have wildly underestimated both. We fall prey to our own distorted reality.

Optimism can also unduly influence groups in what the business media of the 1990s used to callGroupthink. We love to be part of a tribe and a tribe which makes optimism its core value can be great fun and self-affirming for as long as the results are positive. Unfortunately the optimism cavalcade can end with a rude thump because both plans and actions escaped the type of detailed, sceptical scrutiny which allows us to go forward with eyes wide open.

One historical example of this was the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 when a massively outnumbered English army defeated the French, in large part due to the overwhelming optimism of the French Knights in their own superiority and their failure to adapt to the muddy terrain against the long bowmen of the enemy. Hubris could be swapped for optimism on this occasion.

It seems the English, at least, have taken on board the learnings from Agincourt as large, complex engineering projects in the UK are now subject to Optimism Bias Calculators in order to ensure that risks are being viewed realistically and not skewing a project’s feasibility or delivery. Theoretically this should avoid cost, time, quality blow-outs and defects as well as long bowmen on the further side of sticky fields. Most useful.

I have often pondered as to whether people who we regard as leaders within our communities have a bias to being optimistic in order to achieve, sometimes against better judgement and the odds, the startling deeds which become their hallmark of success.

Being an extreme optimist can be dangerous. Another historical note: remember Napoleon Bonaparte’s disastrous belief in 1812 that his all-conquering 680,000-strong Grande Armee could invade and subdue Russia? The result was the return to France only six months later of the surviving 27,000 fit soldiers following a campaign decimated by starvation and the implacable, remorseless cold of a Russian winter. A high price to pay for being an extreme optimist.

While a fair modicum of self-aggrandisement was most certainly involved in Napoleon’s case, the result highlights what the scientists are telling us: we need optimism for survival and to thrive in life but too much of a good thing can turn life sour if taken to the extreme.

Our pessimists and the optimists wear their self-ascribed labels with a badge of honour, seeing the world through a self-fulfilling prism which may or not be true.

Are the optimists genuinely pre-disposed to the sunny-side-of-life or is it mostly a forced and fragile pretence?

For me, I remain determined to continue my life as an optimist because nothing bad is going to happen to me. Right?

For more on this read Tali Sharot’s book The Optimism Bias. A Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brain. or view her TEDTalk.

About the Author /

Paul is the Publisher and Director of IN Noosa Magazine. Enjoying a successful career spanning almost 40 years, working in media and corporate communications industries and more recently in the profit-for-purpose charity and business sector as an Independent Director and Corporate Advisor. A self-confessed Noosa tragic, he has been a regular visitor and "sometimes" resident over the past 25 years.

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