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Optimizing Optimism

The Power of (Slightly) Positive Thinking

By on June 26, 2019

Optimism, the tendency to view events positively and to expect favorable conditions in the future, is a cornerstone of the positive psychology movement which itself calls for a greater emphasis on promoting the good in life (happiness, well-being, strengths, and flourishing) as opposed to the historical focus on eliminating the bad (mental illness, trauma, weaknesses, and suffering).

Research in clinical and health psychology has repeatedly shown that optimistic people tend to enjoy greater life satisfaction, experience fewer negative emotions, cope better with stressful events, have lower rates of infectious disease, recover more quickly from adversity and illness, and live longer lives than do pessimists.

But what about performance?  Does the power of positive thinking extend to the field, court, stage, and boardroom?  Does being optimistic about your chances of achieving those lofty goals make it any more likely that you will actually do so?  

In this article, I examine the benefits and risks of optimism bias – the widespread tendency to overestimate one’s ability and chances of success – and explain why a slight positive distortion in self-appraisal is optimal for performance as long as your beliefs and expectations do not stray too far from reality.  

Optimism Bias: Positive Illusions or Dangerous Delusions?

To perform at your maximum, you have to teach yourself to believe with an intensity that goes way beyond logical justification. No top performer has lacked this capacity for irrational optimism.
~Arsene Wenger (Manager at Arsenal Footbal Club)~

It is well documented that most people tend toward optimism, particularly when it comes to self-appraisal.  The desire we all have for positive of ourselves and our futures frequently leads to self-deception in the form of optimistic biases that come in three main flavors:

Superiority Illusion: The perception of one’s past behavior and enduring qualities as more positive than is objectively warranted.  The vast majority of people rate themselves as being more intelligent, talented, attractive, interesting, friendly, honest, and even more modest than average. We can’t all be above average.

Unrealistic Optimism: The belief that one is more likely to experience positive events and less likely to experience negative events than other people.  The vast majority of people assess their probability of getting a divorce, being in a car accident, or being diagnosed with cancer at far below the statistical average.

Illusion of Control: The overestimation of one’s ability to control random external events over which we demonstrably have no influence. People tend to think they have a better chance of winning at a dice game if they are the ones rolling the dice and a better chance of winning the lottery if they choose the numbers.

There is ample evidence to suggest that these biases, despite being at odds with reality, confer very real benefits in terms of health and happiness and might in fact be essential to staving off anxiety and depression in the face of the fragility and ambiguity of life.  Peter Catina and Seppo Iso-Ahola (2004), in one of few studies examining optimism bias in athletic performance, showed that these so-called “positive illusions” are associated with increased performance success both directly and indirectly through their effect on motivation to compete and expectations of success.

But optimism does not come without its risks (and naysayers), particularly when taken to extremes.  Gross misrepresentation of the self and the external world can lead to manic flights of fancy (gambling, spending sprees, risky business ventures), failure to take basic safety precautions (condoms, seatbelts, sunscreen), and self-defeating processes such as reckless overconfidence, lack of preparation, or fruitlessly pursuing unrealistic goals.  Blind or naïve optimists who lull themselves into complacency or bewitch themselves with false bravado are likely to become “dis-illusioned” as soon as the negative consequences begin to pile up.

In addition to being dangerous, unbridled optimism can also be downright annoying.  Most of us can think of at least one person who is always effulgently positive and explains events in terms of “synchronicities” and “source energy.”  They usually have a copy of The Secret on their bedside table and believe that things will inevitably “manifest” simply by “putting them out into the universe.”  It can be excruciating to be around these Pollyannas who are oblivious to the reality of living in a universe that is at best indifferent to our plans and attachments.

Reality Check: Optimizing Optimism

I always like to look on the optimistic side of life, but I am realistic enough to know that life is a complex matter.
~Walt Disney~

The truth is that few people would cop to being a full-on pessimist.  They are more likely to refer to themselves as realists – the implication being that all optimistic people are unrealistic and in denial of the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics (the universe tends toward disorder) as well as the more pedestrian “Murphy’s Law” (anything that can go wrong will).  Such pessimists-dressed-as-realists would argue that mental health, happiness, and long-term success are best served by a firm grip on reality.

But the boundary between what is realistic and unrealistic is rarely clear.  How realistic, for example, was the belief of the 16th seeded University of Maryland Baltimore County Retrievers that they could upset the overall number 1 seed Virginia Cavaliers in the first round of the 2018 NCAA men’s basketball tournament, a feat that had never been accomplished in 135 tries.  Prior to the game, such a prediction would have been considered laughable – not merely unrealistic, but utterly ridiculous. But it happened. If it happened, then it must not have been all that unrealistic, right?

So until the future actually unfolds, how are we to distinguish judicious optimism that reflects adaptive motivation and coping from naive optimism that supports dangerous self-deception and reality distortion? 

The answer seems to lie in how one handles contradictory evidence from the environment.  The dangerous, quixotic version of optimism is marked by an exclusively confirmatory approach that involves actively avoiding or suppressing information that is not consistent with desired beliefs.   The more pragmatic, measured form of optimism relies on regular reality checks to update assessments of progress and fine-tune one’s understanding of opportunities and obstacles.

The two types of optimism also differ in their interpretations of and responses to failure.  When performance expectations are not met, the effective optimist does not suppress or try to explain away the lackluster results nor do they view them as reason to second-guess their abilities or goals. Instead they focus on the successful aspects of performance and what can be learned from the experience as a way of promoting positive affect, reducing self-doubt, and maintaining motivation so that future results are likely to be better.  

Summary

The realist sees reality as concrete. The optimist sees reality as clay. 
~Robert Brault~

Optimism bias causes most of us to view ourselves in an overly positive light, expect unrealistically good things to happen in the future, and overestimate the degree of control we have on the outcome of events.  Distorting reality in this way is demonstrably good for your health and your performance, but only up to a point. 

As Roy Baumeister (2019) so aptly put it, there appears to be an “optimal margin of illusion.”  By avoiding both brutally accurate self-appraisals and extremely inflated delusions of grandeur, one can be expected to enjoy the well-established benefits of positive illusions while minimizing exposure to the disadvantages and risks associated with grossly exaggerated reality distortions.

In other words:  Think positive, but keep it real dawg. 

With you in the pursuit,

Dr. Dave  

References and Suggested Reading:

In Search of Realistic Optimism, by Sandra Schneider, 2001

What is Unrealistic Optimism?, by Jefferson, Bortolotti, Kuzmanovic, 2017

Positive Illusion and Athletic Success, by Catina & Iso-Ahola, 2004

Too Optimistic About Optimism, by Tenney, Logg, & Moore, 2015

The Optimal Margin of Illusion, by Roy Baumeister, 1989

Dr. Dave Schroerlucke is a mental performance expert helping individuals and teams develop the attitudes, habits, and mental skills that promote optimal performance, particularly within the context of competitive or high-stakes environments. Dr. Dave shares his expertise via blogging, individual coaching, team workshops, and speaking engagements.