The optimism bias

The optimism bias is a tendency for people to believe that they are less likely to experience a negative event compared to others. For example, we acknowledge the danger of driving a car but believe that others are more likely to get in accidents (“people who get in car accidents are bad drivers, I’m a good driver!”). Similarly, studies consistently find that smokers believe the health risks of smoking are lower for themselves than for other smokers. Compared with nonsmokers, both adolescent and adult smokers significantly demote health risks [1].  

Simply put, risk is measured by two factors: severity of risk and likelihood of risk. If you work on an oilrig, for example, the risk would be high: accidents and health effects are severe and likely to happen. Conversely, being a telemarketer poses a low risk: accidents are rare and minor. Psychologists and social scientists discovered the optimism bias by measuring how people compare personal risk to the risk others face [2]. This undue optimism is a concatenation of many other biases and cognitive quirks. We want to believe positive events will happen to us and we want to seem more “well off” than others. The more in-control we feel, the less risk we perceive (e.g., we consider it less risky to drive a car than to ride in one [3]). A “representative heuristic” often prevents us from making accurate comparisons between others and ourselves (e.g., when thinking of a person who is at risk for a car accident we tend to stereotype them as a bad driver, rather than as an average driver). The optimism bias is quite the obstacle for public health officials. Believing that you are always the lucky statistic removes some of the fear inherent to risky behaviors like smoking and makes preventative measures seem unnecessary. The hope in studying the optimism bias is that if information campaigns on the large scale and public health officials on the small scale can reduce bias in the public, it will encourage the adoption of healthy/preventative behaviors. To date, these efforts have been unsuccessful; in some cases even increasing bias [4]. “I can quit whenever I want to…I just don’t want to” A more disturbing finding in the optimism bias research, compounding what Gallup has found, is that adolescents have even more optimism than adults do about the risks of smoking. In one study in the journal Addictive Behaviors [5] adolescent smokers (aged 12-17) displayed some particularly disturbing optimism regarding addiction. The percentage of adolescents who agreed with the statement “I could smoke for a few years and then quit if I wanted to” was 60%, compared to 26% of adolescent nonsmokers—a whole 12% higher than adult smokers agreeing to the same statement. And in nearly every case, adolescent smokers downplayed the risks more than adult smokers (and both downplayed health risks compared to nonsmokers across the board). While still displaying undue optimism, adult smokers acknowledge the risk of addiction and the difficulty of quitting more than adolescent smokers. Perhaps the increased risk perception in adults comes with the personal experience of the addictive and health effects associated with smoking, something that adolescents lack. Undue optimism is coupled to control. Using car accidents again, people are more likely to think they will not be harmed in a car accident if they are driving the car [3]. (The feeling of control surely plays into the misperception that it is more dangerous to fly than drive.) Being able to willfully put down a cigarette may be the feeling of control that generates dangerous adolescent optimism. The adults who have realized how little control they actually have over nicotine addiction are accordingly less optimistic about addiction. Personal experience may trump personal control. But personal experience with smoking is a double-edged sword (aren’t most swords?). In the Addicting Behaviors study, adult smokers were 11% less likely than adolescent smokers to think that most people who smoke all their lives will eventually succumb to a smoking-related illness. I would wager that many smokers know other life-long smokers who haven’t died from smoking. Combine this personal experience with the optimism that they personally are less likely to die from smoking, and a confirmation bias rules the day. When optimistic about the health hazards of smoking, negative outcomes are ignored or discounted and positive outcomes (i.e., not dying) are emphasized. Adolescent smokers have yet to experience this harmful cognitive combination, hence the difference. The danger to this lack of pubescent pessimism is that it can influence the decision to smoke in the first place. The misperception of addiction risk could overpower the consideration of possible health effects 30 or 40 years down the road. If adolescents believe that they can smoke for a few years and quit “if they wanted to,” the decision to start smoking entails less risk. Combine this with optimism that downplays smoking-related health risks more that adult smokers and all nonsmokers, and you have a real public health problem.

Scientific American


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