I’m a better student than most, my kids are cuter, I would rather choose the numbers of the lottery ticket, and despite the huge numbers of startups that fail, mine won’t.
Yeah, I rock.
But, it’s impossible that all of us are above the average, right?
All the lottery tickets have the same probability of winning, so why do we care about choosing the numbers?
In spite of being a brilliant anticipating machine, our brain makes consistent optimistic mistakes when dealing with probabilities that can affect ourselves. This consistent and pervasive optimism bias is robust and well documented. And it comes in differents shades.
The first one is optimism itself. Most people (about 80%), show optimistic biases when judging events. That is, they believe that positive events such as receiving a gift or enjoying a movie will happen more often than they actually happen. The list is long: we tend to underestimate the time a project will take and how much it will cost (a bias itself, called the planning fallacy). We anticipate greater pleasure from vacations that we later get. And we also underestimate the likelihood of negative events like being in a car accident, or getting a serious disease. And the most fascinating part is that being optimistic is actually associated with having good mental health, being physically healthier and even living longer. So, being optimistic might not be so unrealistic after all!
Another side of optimism is that we fall under the impression that we can, somehow, control uncontrollable events. Like throwing the dice harder if we want to get higher numbers and soft if we need lower ones. And going even further, it’s quite fair to say that often we wish we could control someone else’s actions, we fear being controlled by others and detest feeling out of control. This illusion of control in part explains the gambler’s fallacy, the idea that betting to that ‘magic number’ will work, or that we can’t lose so many times in a row.
A not-so-bright-side of optimism is our bias to think we are better than the rest, the ‘better-than-average’ bias (which by the way is more prevalent in western individualistic societies than in oriental community-oriented ones).
It has been shown that we tend to overestimate our driving, learning, teaching, parenting, working competences, and even having more intelligent and gifted children than others. For instance, 94% of US professors rated themselves better than their colleagues and 80% of drivers regard themselves above average. Isn’t that impressive?
There are two interesting colloralies of the better-than-average. As you might well know (and all these pieces show <<link to the other articles>>), our minds are prone to make persistent and predictable mistakes, known as cognitive biases. But guess what? Most of us believe that those biases apply to others, but not ourselves! That’s the blind spot bias. And while we believe that people are highly influenceable by mass and social media, we feel quite impervious to it (the third-person effect).
‘Cause of course, we rock!
Sharot, T. (2011). The optimism bias. Current biology, 21(23), R941-R945.
Makridakis, S., & Moleskis, A. (2015). The costs and benefits of positive illusions. Frontiers in psychology, 6, 859.