Optimism may be dangerous in a pandemic, say behavioral psychologists

Most people believe themselves to be less at risk from COVID-19 than others similar to them, according to a recent UCL survey conducted in the U.S.

Medical face mask
  • A study surveying 1,145 people in the U.S. found that the majority of people believed that they were less likely to catch the virus than the average person, regardless of the person's age or gender.
  • The most effective way to counter the damaging effects of cognitive bias in the context of COVID-19 may be by calling on empathy in individuals.
  • The dangerous effects of optimism bias may be compounded by confirmation bias, salience bias, and internet echo chambers.

A survey study conducted this year (2020) found that most people believe that they are less at risk of contracting COVID-19 than the statistical average for their age or gender.

Over the past decade we've faced an onslaught of research informing us about the benefits of optimism: Better cardiovascular health, lower blood pressure, reduced anxiety levels, and better overall mental as well as physical health. But, as it turns out, expecting the best outcomes for ourselves isn't ideal for a society that needs to halt the exponential spread of a deadly virus.

Optimism bias

smiley paint on gray ground in front of peoplePhoto by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

Most people have a tendency to overestimate the chances of experiencing a positive (like getting a promotion), and underestimate the likelihood of experiencing a negative event (like getting robbed or sick). Typically a benign — even beneficial — human quirk, the "optimism bias" could be contributing to the spread of coronavirus according to behavioral psychologists.

Experts argue that it has caused people to discount their individual chances of contracting COVID-19, despite being aware of its risk to the rest of the population. A study that was conducted over three phases this year surveying 1,145 people in the U.S. found that the majority of people believed that they were less likely to catch the virus than the average person is, regardless of the person's age or gender.

"This is very typical of what optimism bias is," Tali Sharot, a cognitive neuroscientist at University College London and lead author of the study, told CNBC Make It. "You usually believe that your likelihood of experiencing negative events is lower than people like you, and the likelihood of you experiencing positive events is higher than other people like you."

According to Sharot, optimism bias is a product of our tendency to vividly imagine positive future events and attribute more probability to them happening.

In certain circumstances, such as in our jobs and relationships, this can be beneficial by encouraging us to behave in ways that may contribute to positive outcomes, thus becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. But we're in a pandemic, and it's having a concerning impact on our ability to assess risk and react appropriately. As time goes on and COVID-19 cases continue to rise and spread the threat of the virus is becoming a background hum to everyday life making this bias worse.

"I think now the risk is greater because we have gotten used to this threat. And when you get used to a threat you underestimate it even more," said Sharot.

The United States is now reporting the greatest number of cases it's seen to date, with a seven-day average of daily new cases reaching 68,767 on Sunday, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

Other menacing biases

Credit: Michael Siluk/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Optimism bias may be compounded by confirmation bias, or the tendency to interpret new information as confirmation of one's existing beliefs or theories while disregarding information that contradicts one's preferred narrative of reality. Salience bias is also at play, leading people to underplay or discount the threat of something they cannot see such as a microscopic virus or sick people in the hospital.

Additionally, internet echo chambers exacerbate these cognitive biases. When others share our viewpoints, our biases are typically inflated, and it's never been easier to curate our social circles with networks of people who do exactly that. This feeds into the tribalism and polarization that has added to the challenges of getting a majority of the U.S. population to comply with virus safety measures. Think, for example, how the act of wearing a mask has become politicized in the U.S. as a perceived badge as to which group one belongs to, masks often being associated with liberal-leaning people and no masks (anti-maskers) being associated with the far-right.

Critical thinking and empathy 

Strong and informed leadership by policymakers can help to make the public keenly aware of the realities and risks of the virus. Educating individuals about how their biases may be affecting their behavior and putting their health and the health of those around them at risk may also help facilitate critical thinking. But the most effective way to counter the damaging effects of cognitive bias in the context of COVID-19 may be by calling on empathy in individuals.

In fact, while people tend to underestimate their individual risk of contracting the virus, the researchers also found that people's health-related behaviors were more closely linked to their expectations of COVID-19's global impact.

"People who saw Covid-19 as a grave danger to the health of the human race were more likely to follow public health guidelines such as social distancing and hand-washing, even if they underestimated their own personal risks," said Sharot. "This suggests that people are mainly engaging in protective behaviours for the benefit of others, and are not just guided by self-interest, which supports the use of public health messaging framed around concern for the greater good and protecting others."

Optimism bias and other social threats

According to Laura Globig, UCL PhD candidate and co-lead author on the study, this research and methodology could be usefully applied to other major social threats, like climate change.

"For example, it seems likely that people would be more likely to make 'green choices' if they believe humanity to be at threat from environmental change, regardless of perceived threats to themselves," she noted.

Study: Unattractive people far overestimate their looks

The finding is remarkably similar to the Dunning-Kruger effect, which describes how incompetent people tend to overestimate their own competency.

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  • Recent studies asked participants to rate the attractiveness of themselves and other participants, who were strangers.
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Astronomers find more than 100,000 "stellar nurseries"

Every star we can see, including our sun, was born in one of these violent clouds.

Credit: NASA / ESA via Getty Images
Surprising Science

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

An international team of astronomers has conducted the biggest survey of stellar nurseries to date, charting more than 100,000 star-birthing regions across our corner of the universe.

Stellar nurseries: Outer space is filled with clouds of dust and gas called nebulae. In some of these nebulae, gravity will pull the dust and gas into clumps that eventually get so big, they collapse on themselves — and a star is born.

These star-birthing nebulae are known as stellar nurseries.

The challenge: Stars are a key part of the universe — they lead to the formation of planets and produce the elements needed to create life as we know it. A better understanding of stars, then, means a better understanding of the universe — but there's still a lot we don't know about star formation.

This is partly because it's hard to see what's going on in stellar nurseries — the clouds of dust obscure optical telescopes' view — and also because there are just so many of them that it's hard to know what the average nursery is like.

The survey: The astronomers conducted their survey of stellar nurseries using the massive ALMA telescope array in Chile. Because ALMA is a radio telescope, it captures the radio waves emanating from celestial objects, rather than the light.

"The new thing ... is that we can use ALMA to take pictures of many galaxies, and these pictures are as sharp and detailed as those taken by optical telescopes," Jiayi Sun, an Ohio State University (OSU) researcher, said in a press release.

"This just hasn't been possible before."

Over the course of the five-year survey, the group was able to chart more than 100,000 stellar nurseries across more than 90 nearby galaxies, expanding the amount of available data on the celestial objects tenfold, according to OSU researcher Adam Leroy.

New insights: The survey is already yielding new insights into stellar nurseries, including the fact that they appear to be more diverse than previously thought.

"For a long time, conventional wisdom among astronomers was that all stellar nurseries looked more or less the same," Sun said. "But with this survey we can see that this is really not the case."

"While there are some similarities, the nature and appearance of these nurseries change within and among galaxies," he continued, "just like cities or trees may vary in important ways as you go from place to place across the world."

Astronomers have also learned from the survey that stellar nurseries aren't particularly efficient at producing stars and tend to live for only 10 to 30 million years, which isn't very long on a universal scale.

Looking ahead: Data from the survey is now publicly available, so expect to see other researchers using it to make their own observations about stellar nurseries in the future.

"We have an incredible dataset here that will continue to be useful," Leroy said. "This is really a new view of galaxies and we expect to be learning from it for years to come."

Protecting space stations from deadly space debris

Tiny specks of space debris can move faster than bullets and cause way more damage. Cleaning it up is imperative.

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  • To prevent this untrackable space debris from taking out satellites and putting astronauts in danger, scientists have been working on ways to retrieve large objects before they collide and create more problems.
  • The team at Clearspace, in collaboration with the European Space Agency, is on a mission to capture one such object using an autonomous spacecraft with claw-like arms. It's an expensive and very tricky mission, but one that could have a major impact on the future of space exploration.

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Catch more Just Might Work episodes on their channel:
https://www.freethink.com/shows/just-might-work

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