Is Unrealistic Optimism a Positive Delusion and Hard to Change?

Optimism is viewed by many as an indication of mental health, associated with higher levels of subjective well-being, better physical health, and more success. Unrealistic optimism or optimism bias is the “tendency for people to believe that they are less likely to experience negative events and more likely to experience positive events than are other people” and can be harmful. 

How can Unrealistic Optimism hurt us? The optimistic bias is seen in many situations. For example, people believe that they are less at risk of being a crime victim, smokers believe that they are less likely to contract lung cancer or disease than other smokers, or traders who think they are less exposed to potential losses in the markets. 

How can Unrealistic Optimism help us? Unrealistic optimism can act as a self-fulfilling prophecy. By believing that we will be successful, people are, in fact, more likely to be successful. It also motivates us towards our goal as we think that chance of success is higher. Optimists are also more likely to take measures to protect their health, such as exercising, following specific diets, and taking vitamins. 

Why Do we do it? We use this defense mechanism for self-enhancement (it feels good), self-presentation (we want to look better than others), and perceived self-control. Can I reason with it? Studies have shown that it is challenging to eliminate the optimistic bias. One would think that trying to reduce it may encourage people to adapt to health-protective behaviors. However, research has suggested that it cannot be reduced, and efforts to reduce it tend to lead to even more optimistically biased results. The only thing that diminishes UO is prior experiences. I wish I had known this during the COVID-19 pandemic. It would have reduced my anxiety about failing to convince the patients to wear a mask or take the vaccine. Read more here.