Optimism Bias: Good for Us, Bad for Humanity

The Optimism Bias is “a mistaken belief that our chances of experiencing negative events are lower and our chances of experiencing positive events are higher than those of our peers.” This bias makes us do wonderful things, like get married, have kids, and pursue goals. The flip side is we overestimate how good our life will turn out. A betting man would hedge his marriage with a prenuptial agreement. After all, if some 40% of marriages end in divorce, doesn’t a prenup make sense? But we don’t see ourselves as subject to the statistical laws that apply to everyone and everything else. I won’t get divorced.

While the personal pitfalls of the optimism bias worry me, I’m most concerned with how the optimism bias works against global civilization. The flip side of the optimism bias is that we are less optimistic about others, society and the world. After a terrible event the world tends to regress toward the mean just like everything else. If there’s a mass shooting–utterly unnecessary and always tragic–we forget that these are outliers as murder rates are at historic lows. We’re subject to the availability heuristic–what we see is all there is, and what we see is the news, not the stats.

But the big story is the opposite of the optimism bias: I should be more cautious–buy life insurance, drive safely, make a prenup, exercise, keep my will up to date–but the world is probably better than I think it is. And if I’m not sure I shouldn’t look at the news; I should check out Max Roser’s Our World in Data, Hans Rosling’s Gapminder, or Cato Institute’s Human Progress. These troves of data demonstrate the positive trends in agriculture, crime, education, human rights, democracy, health and safety that define our age much more than terrorism and other front page stories.

Optimism is great. It probably kept us alive in lean times on the savanna. But today’s world is complex, and if we misread reality–that things actually are progressing for most of humanity–and see a need to rejigger our economy and civilization, we may unwittingly dismantle the institutions that have brought the advances in agriculture, crime, education, human rights, democracy, health and safety that we have won since the end of World War II and the Fall of the Wall.