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.
- 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 biasPhoto 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.
When are you most optimistic? A study found how optimism varies throughout life.
- Researchers studied more than 1,000 people during the course of 7 years.
- They found that levels of optimism change throughout life.
- Optimism grows through the 30s and 40s and peaks in mid-50s.
How do levels of optimism change throughout our life? Researchers at the University of California, Davis, figured out the answer.
They analyzed a relatively large sample of 1,169 Mexican-Americans between ages 26 and 71 who were surveyed over a period of seven years. At four different instances, the participants completed the Life Orientation Test, used to measure optimism.
The test has six questions:
- In uncertain times, I usually expect the best.
- If something can go wrong for me, it will.
- I'm always optimistic about my future.
- I hardly ever expect things to go my way.
- I rarely count on good things happening to me.
- Overall, I expect more good things to happen to me than bad
Participants also answered 54 questions about a variety of positive and negatives experiences they've recently had. These included: "Over the past three months, you got laid off" as well as "In the past year, you were accepted into an educational program that is important to you" and "In the past year, you developed new friendships that are important to you."
The scientists found that optimism tends to be lower for people in their 20s, then goes up through the 30s and 40s until peaking in the 50s (with 55 being the age of peak optimism). After that it starts to gradually decline.
The authors called this pattern "an inverted U shape, with a peak in late midlife." Previous studies showed that a similar trend is followed by other positive personality traits such as self-esteem and satisfaction with life.
Interestingly, the researchers also discovered that being optimistic is not necessarily tied to the kinds of events that happen in your life. Subjects who had positive experiences did indicate higher trajectories of optimism. But the ones who had negative experiences were not necessarily less optimistic.
Check out the study published in the journal Social Psychology and Personality Science.
Researchers look into the drug's association with pronounced optimism.
When most people think of LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) the image that comes to mind is hallucinating hippies at Woodstock, but the drug's original use was psychotherapeutic. As early as the 1960s, researchers showed that LSD reduces depression, anxiety and pain in patients with advanced cancer, and recent years have seen a resurgence of interest in the drug's beneficial effects. In 2014, Swiss psychiatrist Peter Gasser published the results of a study showing that LSD could alleviate the symptoms of severe anxiety disorder. And a 2016 study from Imperial College London showed that LSD could increase levels of optimism and openness for extended periods of time.
The LSD story goes back to Albert Hofmann, a Swiss chemist who first synthesised the compound in 1938. Hofmann accidentally discovered its hallucinogenic effects after ingesting 250 μg (a very large dose!) before his evening commute home. Being the good scientist that he was, he recorded a detailed account of his experience in his notebook. His initial, paranoia-filled reaction was followed the next day by a blissful experience, in which 'everything glistened, and sparkled in a fresh light'.
It was this final, uplifting insight that the researchers at Imperial set out to re-explore in rigorous fashion, starting with 20 participants recruited by word-of-mouth. These subjects were all over the age of 21, had no history of psychiatric illness, and reported at least one previous experience with a hallucinogen like magic mushrooms or LSD – the last requirement implemented to minimise adverse responses to the drug. Each subject visited the testing centre twice: once to receive LSD (75 μg lower than the dose taken by recreational users) and once to receive a placebo, though the order in which these individuals received the LSD was random.
Much like Hofmann himself, test subjects reported feeling the effect of the LSD as quickly as ten minutes after the infusion, with the experience lasting for nearly eight hours in all. Several hours into the dosing, they were asked to answer a series of questions regarding their psychological wellbeing. Participants remained in the research centre for the remainder of the day with a psychiatrist present until they were functioning normally. In order to determine longer-term effects, they filled out the same questionnaires two weeks later.
Shortly after taking the drug, participants who received LSD reported an increase in psychosis-like symptoms, including visual hallucinations, spiritual experiences and paranoia. It was an outcome the researchers had expected. But interestingly, those given LSD were more likely to feel positive, and even 'blissful' emotions, as opposed to the negative and 'anxious' feelings sometimes associated with psychedelic drugs. What was even more striking was that two weeks after taking LSD, these individuals reported increased optimism and openness, making them more creative and curious, as compared with those who received the placebo.
How can a drug that creates a temporary psychosis lead to such pronounced long-term optimism? This is a mostly unanswered question, but researchers think it has something to do with the serotonin 2A receptor (5-HT2AR). This receptor is expressed all over the brain, particularly in regions associated with cognitive functions and social interactions. Stimulation of this receptor has been directly linked to cognitive flexibility, enhanced imagination and creative thinking. Disorders associated with variants of the 5-HT2AR include schizophrenia, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder – in other words, a panoply of psychiatric illness. It turns out that LSD functions by binding to and stimulating 5-HT2AR in the cerebral cortex, which is thought to regulate an enzyme called phospholipase C, and eventually leads to psychoactive effects. In fact, blockage of this receptor has been linked to a remediation of the hallucinatory effects of LSD in rats.
The precise biology behind LSD's transformational potential remains a mystery. But researchers at Imperial suggest that once LSD binds to the receptor, it's possible that the initial 'blast' of stimulation results in more intense, acute psychotic-like symptoms, whereas the longer-term effects produce a 'loosening' of network dynamics, and a general increase in optimism and wellbeing.
No one is suggesting that you illegally consume LSD to increase long-term optimism, but the study raises important questions. Could LSD one day be used to treat maladies such as major depressive disorder? Would the short-term psychological discomfort of giving an individual therapeutic LSD be worth the potential long-term benefits? Would the positive effects of LSD persist longer than two weeks? What is the physiological cascade that begins with LSD binding to 5-HT2AR activation and ends with psychological effects such as increased optimism? Is there a way to synthesise a compound that would take advantage of the beneficial aspects of LSD, while minimising the negative effects? There's only one way to find out – more scientific experiments!
This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.
Envisioning all possible outcomes is far healthier than only praying for the best.
Positive thinking has long been championed in American culture. While optimism is part of our biological inheritance—when we’re not hopeful about the future, anxiety and depression can easily transform into suicidal tendencies—positive thinking and positive psychology grew into billion-dollar industries, beginning with Norman Vincent Peale’s 1952 book, The Power of Positive Thinking.
Whereas the first self-help book, Self-Help, an 1855 volume by Scottish political reformer Samuel Smiles, was a tribute to the importance of failure, Peale’s objective was quite different. After introducing the concept of “positive thinking,” he taught a continuous and permanent state of optimism. He sold over five million copies while remaining on the NY Times bestsellers list for 186 consecutive weeks, even as he was dubbed a con man and his theories were clinically challenged.
Peale’s message was too seductive for a growingly dissatisfied culture like America, in which more is never enough. This messaging was repeated in 2006 when an equally dubious writer published The Secret, taking the metaphysics of positive thought to new heights. Rhonda Byrne promised that if you weren’t living right, you weren’t thinking right, which set up readers to experience serious guilt—and to purchase subsequent courses, books, workshops, and the rest of the incredible catalog of add-ons that followed.
All the while the science of optimism has been on unstable ground. In fact, focusing on the worst might be more cognitively and emotionally beneficial than hoping for the best. As Oliver Burkeman, a positive psychology critic and columnist at The Guardian, argues:
[I]t’s our relentless effort to feel happy, or to achieve certain goals, that is precisely what makes us miserable and sabotages our plans. And that it is our constant quest to eliminate or to ignore the negative—insecurity, uncertainty, failure, sadness—that causes us to feel so insecure, anxious, uncertain or unhappy in the first place.
Burkeman suggests that fully experiencing negative emotions steels you against the reality of life’s transience. The “negative path” teaches us to learn to enjoy times of uncertainty, embrace insecurity, and, with a head-nod to Samuel Smiles, constantly learn from failure.
Real world data back this up. A 2010 study, published in the journal Emotion, discovered that students who felt optimistic about test scores were more distraught when not hitting their target than doubtful students who ended up scoring higher than expected. The authors conclude that proactively managing expectations to “avoid the costs of optimism” might just be a better strategy.
Thinking critically about health also proves beneficial. This study looked at 148 adults between the age of 57 and 77. Volunteers optimistic about their health were more likely to display early signs of heart disease than those critical of their ticker. Sure, doubt itself can be crippling, but a healthy dose of it is, well, healthy.
In her book, Rethinking Positive Psychology, NYU psychology professor Gabriele Oettingen discusses a group of women trying to lose weight. Over the course of a year, women that envisioned a slimmer version of themselves lost an average of twenty-four pounds less than women who viewed their bodies more negatively. As Oettingen writes:
The starry-eyed dreamers in the study were less energized to behave in ways that helped them lose weight.
This is not an ode to unfettered negativity: women (and to a lesser degree, men) that are too hard on their weight become candidates for eating disorders and radical dieting. But as Oettingen writes, the short-term alleviation from sadness promoted by positive thinking often results in long-term frustration. Increased depression was observed in positive thinkers over longer stretches of time; Oettingen attributes this, in part, to an addiction to “short-term pleasure” achieved through contemplating a perfect, or at least better, future.
Negative thinking isn’t even the proper term. Let’s call it discerning thought. Sure, your heart feels fine now, but you consume more sugar than you should, which is true for most Americans. Instead of believing that no pain equals no problem, you get everything checked out. You’re aware of the risks and foresee potential danger instead of envisioning a healthy life until you die peacefully in your sleep one night at age one hundred.
Discernment requires nuance, a quality which, in the hostile social media-dominated nation we currently occupy, we’re lacking. In a 2016 study, a majority of white Americans stated that America has changed for the worse since the fifties (not so for blacks and Hispanics), even though we live in the most financially prosperous country in the history of the world. Chronic dissatisfaction is crippling. It makes sense we’d tip too far in the other direction trying to counter our persistent craving for more.
Nuance means we’ll weigh the possibilities instead of picturing the best possible outcome. That includes envisioning the ideal and potential pitfalls. Preparing yourself for abundance, to borrow a term popular in the new age and yoga communities, is a certain way to ensure disappointment. It’s not that you can’t hope for the best of all worlds. It just means you have to live in this one, whatever it presents. It means living a contented life, not one fueled by a constant grasping for pleasure.
Derek Beres is the author of Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health. Based in Los Angeles, he is working on a new book about spiritual consumerism. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.
Here's what Israel Guillen learned about life by studying 8 hours a day during his 22-year prison sentence.
Being "tough on crime" doesn't work. Former inmate Israel Guillen is proof that what does work is nurturing people's sense of humanity through philosophy, theatre, and teamwork. Ten years ago, actor Sabra Williams had an experimental idea: she wanted to bring The Actors' Gang Theatre Company into prisons to work with non-actors, and offer them training to understand and manager their emotions. With an incredibly low recidivism rate of just 10% among her students, Williams' experimental idea has proven its worth and now operates in ten prisons across California, which is where Sabra Williams met former inmate and Actors' Gang student Israel Guillen. Israel recently shared his personal story of what he learned throughout his 22-year prison sentence at the Los Angeles Hope Festival, a collaboration between Big Think and Hope & Optimism. The Actors’ Gang conducts weekly and seven-day intensive programs inside the California prison system, a weekly re-entry program in the community, as well as a program in juvenile facilities, and soon to be a program designed for correctional officers. Head here for more information on The Actors' Gang Prison Project.