Published: 2009-10-24

‘Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement…no pessimist ever discovered the secret of the stars, or sailed to an uncharted land, or opened a new doorway for the human spirit’. Helen Keller (1880 – 1968)

Helen Keller’s words reflect the popular upbeat concept of the word which has been gaining ground since the 1960s as an increasing body of research has demonstrated a consistent tendency of healthy successful people to think in generally positive ways.

Work by Tiger (1979) suggested that optimism is prevalent because it has adaptive utility. A substantial body of research now supports this but confirms that optimism is not without risk. This essay will examine definitions and components of optimism as a background to understanding the mechanisms by which it acts and then present research findings about benefits and harm.

Methodologies, research problems and the influence of publication bias, possibly itself the product of optimism, will be discussed followed by a few examples of beneficial outcomes arising from the application of research on optimism.

The Different Types of Optimism

In order to gain a better understanding of optimism, it is important to consider the different types of optimism that researchers consider today.

  • Dispositional optimism is defined as a global expectation that more good (desirable) things than bad (undesirable) will happen in the future (Scheier and Carver, 1985). As a personality trait, it is presumed to be stable with little scope for change and is alternatively described as big optimism (Peterson, 2000).
  • The term ‘unrealistic’ in unrealistic optimism (Weinstein, 1989) describes the objective mismatch between the expectations of dispositional optimism and actuarial evidence about probability of life events occurring. It also refers to the presumed non-congruence between the inevitability of adversity and the anticipation of experiencing life as more good than bad.  The question is whether it is irrational to view adversity as anything other than bad. If adversity is perceived as unpleasant at the time but sufficiently replete with opportunity for personal growth and learning as to be beneficial overall, this element of non-congruence between actuality and expectation is reduced or disappears.
  • Optimism as attributional style views optimism as a style of reasoning about cause (Buchanan & Seligman, 1995). Optimists attribute good events with permanence (likely to recur), pervasiveness (the ‘goodness’ will extend to other future events) and internality (I caused it and can cause it again). Bad events are, by contrast, regarded as impermanent, non-pervasive and due to causes external to the self.
  • Comparative optimism (Radcliffe and Klein, 2002) introduces relativity of expectation of good outcomes for the self compared with a similar other.
  • Situational optimism refers to the general expectations of a good outcome in a specific context.
  • Strategic optimism (Ruthig et al., 2007) is a domain specific denial of risk based on a belief in having control.
  • Realistic optimism is defined by Sneider (2001) with reference to Degrandpre (2000) as the ‘tendency to maintain a positive outlook within the constraints of the available measurable phenomena situated in the physical and social world’. Realism refers to the relationship between available knowledge and understanding at any given moment, possible choices and chosen actions.
  • Optimism bias refers to the way knowledge evaluation has been shown to be skewed in predictable, positive and self serving ways.  More weight is given to information if it favours the self or it supports a desired conclusion (Flyvbjerg, 2006). Optimism helps people remember and recall personally relevant health related information (Abele and Gendolla, 2007). People given identical descriptions or statistics will weight information differently when used to describe something they want (e.g. the tablet might cure them) or something they do not (e.g. the tablet might cause side-effects). The strength of this effect is not constant. Positive affect increases optimism bias, although motivation theory would predict the opposite (Chambers and Windschitl, 2004). In situations of limited opportunity to evaluate knowledge due to time pressure or lack of information, evaluations are based on affect (Lench and Ditto, 2008).

Optimism itself is not clean cut but is instead possessed in varying degrees (Peterson, 2000). He describes optimism as a:

‘velcro construct, to which everything sticks’ (Peterson, 2000, p.47).

Optimism, is associated with specific coping styles, goal framing and positive affect. Optimists exhibit attention to positive information and show active engagement, positive reframing and problem solving type behaviours (Carr, 2004). Pessimists give more attention to negative information, and show passivity, denial and avoidance.

However, most people operate in the middle ground and display a mixture of styles. Optimists tend towards goal commitment, where the aim is to achieve the end result, (Zang, Fishbach & Dhar, 2007) rather than goal pursuit, where the objective is to have a go. Goal commitment requires achieving the end result, so optimists persevere.

The Effects of Optimism

Dispositional optimism seems to have direct effects on body function. The other types of optimism seem to mediate their effects via actions arising out of optimism biased information evaluation, goal framing, and meaning.

Seligman investigated attributional style optimism and success in sales insurance. He identified the top quartile of attributional style optimists amongst applicants for jobs as life insurance salesmen (extreme optimists) and found those selected on this basis performed much better and stayed in the job for longer than salesmen selected using standard industry tests.

The same mechanism drives athletic performance (Seligman, 1992; Gordon, 2007) both in individuals and team sports. Attributional style optimists improve their times after being told they completed a slightly slow time trial whereas pessimists show a marked deterioration. Team performance can be predicted based on assessment of the attributional style optimism of team members and coaches.  The key to performance was perseverance in the face of failure, a product of attributing bad events to one-off, non-pervasive external causes as optimists do.

A study of new venture performance (Hmieleski, 2007) examined the relationship between dispositional optimism and experience on the performance of entrepreneurial managers. Optimists were found to be more effective in stable environments and pessimists in dynamically unstable environments.

Optimists base more of their decisions on previous experience and existing information allowing quick efficient decisions which are safe when the business background is well understood.

The Downside of Optimism

This leads us into the downside of optimism. In an uncertain or rapidly changing business situation, the optimist’s relative inattention to detail, failure to seek new information and selective inattention to unpromising data can lead to poorly informed decisions.

Optimism bias is identified as one of two causes of a chronic inability to accurately anticipate costs of  big projects, a  major problem for governments and companies for over 70 years e.g. consistent  under-anticipation of costs for rail projects and roads (Flyvbjerg, 2006). Inaccuracies consistently show a significant non-normal distribution suggesting bias rather than poor data. Inspired by Kahneman’s 2003 Nobel prize winning work on decision making under uncertainty, Flyvbjerg looked for explanations and identified two causes.

One was optimism bias in information assessment, causing real but unintentional errors of judgment. The errors are predictable, shared by experts and lay people and remain compelling even when people are made aware. Similar factors affect personal finance decisions. Yang, Markoczy and Qi (2006) investigated the curious phenomenon that many people consistently pick credit card options which are disadvantageous for them.

People often choose cards with a low annual fee and high APR, despite the fact that they regularly fail to clear their balances and pay much more than if they had a higher fee, lower APR card. These are the optimists. The high fee is an immediate but solvable problem (opt for the smaller fee) and the more distant possible failure to pay off the balance thus incurring interest, is an event they believe will not happen.

Puri and Robinson (2007) showed that extreme optimists have much shorter term financial horizons, save less, work shorter hours, exhibit less financial self control and are less likely to pay off credit card balances than moderate optimists or pessimists.

Harmful risk taking has long been assumed to be a danger of optimism and there is some evidence to support this. Optimism is associated with rationalising beliefs, like for example that lung cancer risk is mainly genetic, most cases of it are generally cured and smoking for a long time without disease developing means they are less likely to be affected (Dillard, McCaul & Klein, 2006). The high general optimism of children, especially boys, seems to be a contributory factor to accidental injury which is the leading cause of death in childhood (Little, 2006).

Research on Optimism

Research itself may be affected by optimism bias. Although a literature research found no studies specifically looking for optimism as a cause of publication bias, the similarities are striking. Bias towards publishing positive findings was described by Sterling in 1959, when he found that that 97% of published articles from four psychology journals reported statistically significant findings.

Reviews of publication bias (Sterling, Rosenbaum & Weinkam, 1995, Sohn, 1996) found that attempts to reduce this are failing. Sohn found an eight fold difference in likelihood of studies being submitted for publication if results were positive rather than negative and that negative studies are often not even prepared for publication. Reviewers are highly influenced by the strength and direction of results (Sterling citing Mahoney, 1977). The resulting positive skew limits the validity of conclusions based on literature reviews.

On balance, however, optimism seems to be prevalent because it helps much more than it harms and further understanding has tremendous potential for improving the human condition. However, reading the literature makes it clear that for every question answered at least one new one is raised, not least the possibility that optimism itself may affect the validity of research.


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