New study casts doubt on claims people are “optimistically biased” about the future, a trend that contributes to financial crises, people’s inability to take care of their health, or inaction in the face of the future. to climate change.
For decades, scientists have believed that people have an “irrational optimism bias” – they look too on the bright side and underestimate their chances of having negative experiences. while overestimating their chances of positive events. This overly optimistic trend is taken into account by the UK government when planning large infrastructure projects.
However, a new study by researchers at the University of Bath, UCL, and Birkbeck, University of London, shows flaws in the research supporting the existence of an optimism bias. According to the authors, previous studies have generated “false positives” – data patterns that appear to be overly optimistic, when such a bias does not exist.
The researchers conducted several experiments using a methodology that was widely accepted in previous research on optimism. This methodology – known as the “update method” – allows participants to estimate their chance of experiencing a life event, and then re-estimate it after receiving the average person’s actual chance of living. the event.
Typically, this was done with negative life events, such as contracting an illness or getting a divorce – cases of bad news that would elicit a strong emotional response.
In this new study, published this week in the journal Cognition, the researchers tested the same “update method” but removed the emotional element, using neutral examples such as participants rating the chances that the next passing car would be black in color.
Despite modifying the examples and removing emotional elements, the same optimistic pattern was observed, leading researchers to dispute the validity of methods used in research claiming to prove optimism bias.
Principal investigator Jason Burton of Birkbeck said: âOur experiments show that the method commonly used to prove such optimism is flawed, leading to an update of ‘optimistic’ beliefs where optimism is not. Not possible. This does not mean that the optimism bias cannot exist. in the real world, but new and improved methods are needed. Essentially, the current methods return false positives. “
Co-researcher Punit Shah, associate professor in the Department of Psychology at Bath, said: âThere is of course some evidence of optimism in some situations, but that doesn’t mean humans are generally optimistic. Researchers and policymakers have made careers on the basis of the idea. of optimism bias, but it is time to reconsider the evidence for this psychological phenomenon. “
âThe optimism bias is continually used to guide large government projects, apparently to manage projections regarding the time and financial costs of the project. . “
The research was funded by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation Anneliese Maier Research Prize awarded to Ulrike Hahn.
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