Optimism Bias and the Coronavirus - THINKERS Notebook

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Optimism Bias and the Coronavirus

One of the most common cognitive biases is optimism bias, which leads us to believe that we are less likely to experience a negative event. 

Before I delve into the negative impacts of optimism bias, let me acknowledge its positive qualities, because having an optimistic view of the future is generally a good thing.

Such a mindset gives us a sense of hope and anticipation for what's to come. This can be quite important in generating and maintaining the motivation we need to go after our goals. 

However ...

One area where our propensity to be biased toward optimism can harm us over the long term is our health.

Part of the reason for this is that optimism bias tends to be stronger for negative events than positive events.

In other words, we tend to underestimate the potential negative impact of a bad decision (e.g. how quickly we'll gain weight from a poor diet) even more than we overestimate the potential positive impact of a good decision (e.g. how much money we'll make from smart investing strategies.)

Our bias toward optimism will lead us to expect rosy outcomes in each case, but we tend to be even more unrealistic in the negative situations. This is explained by the valence effect.

So when it comes to our health, we seem predisposed to believing that we are at less risk for a range of negative health outcomes than we actually are.

  • Eating a poor diet?Eh, I'll be able to correct it in time before chronic issues crop up.
  • Skipped the flu shot? Eh, I've avoided the flu in the past and I have a pretty good immune system. I'll be okay.
  • Global pandemic occurring? Eh, that's over there. We'll be fine over here.

Hey, let's focus in on that last one, shall we?

Because in case you haven't been paying attention, the whole global pandemic thing is becoming a real concern with the coronavirus outbreak that began in China.

On Tuesday, the CDC warned that outbreaks could be coming to the U.S., labeling it less a matter of if than when. The CDC recommended that hospitals and schools begin making preparations. Businesses were even advised to "arrange for employees to work from home."

Reading that definitely made the coronavirus feel a lot more like something that could reasonably happen here in the U.S., as opposed to just something happening "over there."

In hindsight, it felt like my optimism bias being pierced by a realistic warning that this is worth taking seriously and preparing for -- even if the preparations, at this point, are just mental.

Of course, I'm still not overly concerned about it just yet, with so few cases in the U.S. Maybe that's a sign that my optimism bias is still winning out, even though the risk seems to increase by the day?

As we've learned, cognitive biases are fairly easy to point out. They aren't always so easy to overcome. 

Regardless, I'm at least more keenly aware of the potential risk of the coronavirus, and hopefully you are too -- wherever you're reading this.

Our tendency toward optimism bias helps us in so many ways, but it can get in the way of us making prudent decisions for our health and well-being if we aren't vigilant about recognizing it and combatting it. 

So here are three links to help you prepare:


And below, you will find three additional links to help you deal with your natural tendency toward optimism bias.

But first a quick update from inside the THINKERS Workshop.


This Week in the THINKERS Workshop

Speaking of links, THINKERS Notebook founder Sean Jackson is an avid reader and loves posting links to interesting articles that he finds.

Here are a few recent examples:

The THINKERS Workshop costs $499.99 per year to be a member. If you own a THINKERS Notebook, then you get a special discount. Just reply to this email and let me know you have a notebook, and I'll pass along the discount code.

Now on to this week's links ...

What does it mean that we are hardwired for hope?

In fact, a growing body of scientific evidence points to the conclusion that optimism may be hardwired by evolution into the human brain.

The science of optimism, once scorned as an intellectually suspect province of pep rallies and smiley faces, is opening a new window on the workings of human consciousness.

What it shows could fuel a revolution in psychology, as the field comes to grips with accumulating evidence that our brains aren't just stamped by the past. They are constantly being shaped by the future.

Read: The Optimism Bias (Tali Sharot for TIME Magazine)

How healthcare professionals can "counternudge" to fight bias with bias

We tend to think we have a lower risk of a bad outcome and a higher risk of a good outcome — i.e., we are unrealistically optimistic. We smoke cigarettes but believe we have a lower lung cancer risk than other smokers. It won’t happen to me!
By making us think that bad outcomes are less likely than they really are, unrealistic optimism psychologically dampens the rational factors that should motivate us to change our behavior.

These biases are extremely difficult to tackle. In fact, it would be unwise to challenge them directly (e.g., by pointing out one’s statistical risk of lung cancer or their family history of heart attacks). Fortunately, we don’t have to fix our innate biases to improve health. In fact, we can leverage other cognitive biases to mitigate these biases through counternudging.

Read: Fighting Bias with Bias: Counternudging for Health (Paul Cohen)

The illusion of invulnerability

Cognitive neuroscientist Tali Sharot, author of The Optimism Bias: A Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brain, notes that this bias is widespread and can be seen in cultures all over the world. Sharot also suggests that while this optimism bias can at times lead to negative outcomes like foolishly engaging in risky behaviors or making poor choices about your health, it can also have its benefits.

This optimism enhances well-being by creating a sense of anticipation about the future. If we expect good things to happen, we are more likely to be happy. This optimism, she also explained in a 2012 TED Talk, can act as a self-fulfilling prophecy. By believing that we will be successful, people are in fact more likely to be successful.

Read:Understanding the Optimism Bias (Kendra Cherry)

Quote of the week

"If I advocate cautious optimism it is not because I do not have faith in the future but because I do not want to encourage blind faith.”

Aung San Suu Kyi


Jerod Morris
Chief Creative Thinker

Photo by CDC on Unsplash