Unrealistic optimism - Its nature, causes and effects: Introduction to special issue on unrealistic optimism

Anneli Jefferson, Lisa Bortolotti, Bojana Kuzmanovic

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3 Citations (Scopus)


In this special issue, we bring together work from leading experts on self-enhancing beliefs and unrealistic optimism. The aim of the issue is to provide an overview of empirical and conceptual issues in the fast growing research on optimistically biased beliefs and predictions. Our contributors consider different forms of unrealistic optimism, address controversies in the research on optimistic belief updating, explore the relation between unrealistic optimism and other positive illusions, and discuss the consequences of optimistically biased beliefs. This special issue grew out of the workshop “Unrealistic Optimism: its Nature, Causes, and Effects” held in London on February 25th-26th 2016. The workshop was generously supported by the Hope and Optimism funding initiative, the Mind Association, and the British Society for the Philosophy of Science. The first part of the issue contains papers on the nature of unrealistic optimism and its relationship to epistemic irrationality and false beliefs, belief updating, self-deception, and other effects observed in people’s predictions. In their opening paper ‘What is Unrealistic Optimism?’ Anneli Jefferson, Lisa Bortolotti and Bojana Kuzmanovic are interested in the nature of unrealistic optimism. They argue that expressions of unrealistic optimism should count as expressions of beliefs, and ask when such beliefs should be regarded as false or epistemically irrational. They also consider the question to which extent unrealistically optimistic beliefs can be changed by life experiences or conflicting evidence, as this is relevant both to understanding the nature of unrealistic optimism and the extent to which it is irrational. Tali Sharot and Neil Garrett present new research on optimistic belief updating and address recent criticisms of the belief updating paradigm in their paper ‘Optimistic Update Bias holds firm: Three tests of Robustness following Shah et al.’. Optimistic belief updating occurs when people update their predictions regarding future events more in response to welcome news than in response to unwelcome news. Garrett and Sharot show that unrealistic optimism can also be observed when people make predictions for positive events, and that results can be reproduced even after correcting for the confounds discussed by Shah and colleagues in a recent paper (Shah, Harris, Bird, Catmur, & Hahn, 2016). In ‘The Optimist within? Selective Sampling and Self Deception’, Leslie van der Leer and Ryan McKay describe a study in which participants exhibit selective sampling which favours a positive outcome when people are asked to estimate the probability of an outcome a second time. In contrast, when participants are asked for a second prediction regarding a neutral outcome, the second estimate is not more positive than the first. They take this as evidence for self-deception: individuals choose the more positive estimates from their internal probability distribution. Adam Harris addresses the apparent contradiction between research showing a severity effect in people’s predictions and the literature on unrealistic optimism in his paper ‘Understanding the coherence of the severity effect and optimism phenomena: Lessons from attention’. The severity effect describes the tendency of people to rate negative outcomes as more probable than neutral outcomes. He hypothesizes that the tension between severity effect and unrealistic optimism could be resolved by drawing on the literature on attention that shows privileged processing of both positive and negative stimuli, and by considering non-motivational explanations of optimism phenomena. In the second part of the issue, authors deal with the consequences of unrealistic optimism and other positive illusions. Fernando Blanco’s paper, ‘Positive and Negative Implications of the Causal Illusion’, investigates both the causes and the effects of illusions of causality, and more specifically the illusion of control. He shows how causal illusions can arise in situations where there is no contingency between two event types, but the one event type frequently succeeds the other. One of the negative effects of causal illusions is the belief in pseudoscience, which occurs for example when people start believing in ineffective medicines because they take spontaneous remission from a non-serious disease to be caused by the use of said medicines. In their paper, ‘The Hubris Hypothesis, the Downside of Comparative Optimism Displays,’ Vera Hoorens, Carolien van Damme, Marie Helweg-Larsen and Constantine Sedikides look at the effect of individuals’ expressions of comparative unrealistic optimism and absolute optimism on the perceptions that other people have of them. They find that when individuals disclose comparative optimism, i.e. the belief that their future will be better than that of others, this affects observers’ evaluation of their likeability. Hoorens and colleagues attribute this result to observers’ judgment that comparative optimism implies a relatively more negative assessment of other people and their future. The final paper is entitled ‘Assessing the Consequences of Unrealistic Optimism: Challenges and Recommendations’. Here, James Shepperd, Gabrielle Pogge and Jennifer Howell raise a number of methodological issues in establishing the consequences of unrealistic optimism and make recommendations for future research. They point out factors which make it hard or impossible to assess the consequences of unrealistic optimism. For example, unrealistic optimism is most frequently measured at a group level, which means we do not know which individuals within a group are unrealistically optimistic, that in turn makes assessing consequences difficult. Furthermore, in studies which do try to assess behavioural consequences, individuals are normally only asked about their intentions for future actions, what is instead needed is longitudinal research that looks at actual outcomes. Reference Shah et al., 2016 P. Shah, A.J.L. Harris, G. Bird, C. Catmur, U. Hahn A pessimistic view of optimistic belief updating Cognitive Psychology (2016) http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cogpsych.2016.05.004 © 2016 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Original languageEnglish
JournalConsciousness and Cognition
Early online date4 Dec 2016
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 4 Dec 2016


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