People Are Too Optimistic About How Much Optimism Matters

Looking on the bright side doesn’t actually make dark things bright

Optimistic kid
Cavan Images/Corbis

Much has been made about the power of positive thinking, despite the research showing not only are optimists deluding themselves, but they might live shorter lives compared to pessimists. American culture, in particular, seems to venerate optimism, even though it can be unrealistic. (Case in point: Tornado survivors feel hopeful that they won’t be hit again.) People even tend to think that seeing sunshine in the future can make it so. But a recent study adds to the case that this simply isn’t so.

Elizabeth Tenney, of the University of Utah investigated the power of optimistic mindsets through three experiments, writes Alex Fradera for BPS Research Digest

“I kept hearing about how optimistic mindset was so great, but then you think about all the times that striving for accuracy might be better for the individual," Tenney says in a press release from the University of Utah David Eccles School of Business

For the first experiment, one group of people worked on a math task after hearing false feedback on their training for the task. Some were told they were likely to do well, others that they would fare poorly. A second group then rated how they thought the first group would preform on the task after being primed with positive or negative feedback. The predicting participants thought the test takers would do much better if given reason to be optimistic. But they didn’t. 

It’s possible that the predictors were remembering other work that shows just how undermining stereotypes about math performance can be, or how easy it is to pass on fear of math, but the next phases of the study also showed similar results with no math involved. 

In the second part of the experiment, participants were asked to examine complex images and find specific things — a kind of "Where’s Waldo?" search. But being optimistic didn’t help them there either. Fradera writes:

We might expect optimism to deliver results through sheer tenacity, and indeed the optimistic task completers did persist for about 20 per cent longer on the task. But this translated into a scant 5 per cent (statistically non-significant) improvement, not the hefty 33 per cent improvement expected by the predictors.

The final experiment looked at how important people feel optimist really is. In this part of the study, they had participants rank how well fictional people might have fared on a test after reading profiles listing a variety of traits or character notes. In most cases, people were relatively good at correlating a personality trait to success on the test. For example, those who said they enjoyed the test were more likely to do well on it, and those who read about someone enjoying the test were more likely to accurately predict just how much better the test-taker would do. Except when it came to optimism. Here, the researchers showed that people who were described as optimistic were predicted to do far better than they actually did. 

Tenney and her colleagues published the study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology under the title "(Too) optimistic about optimism: The belief that optimism improves performance." 

In the University of Utah press release, Tenney clarifies that the findings don’t mean optimism is useless, just that people tend to ascribe more power to the mindset than it confers. The release explains that the savvy person can use this false belief to get ahead. When other people are assessing your ability to do something, let them know just how optimistic you are that you will succeed. One good situation to do this would when you are pitching an idea to your boss. “People are going to think that you need that optimism in order to perform, and they will expect your optimism and value it, but how much that optimism actually ends up helping you, well that’s another question,” Tenney says in the release.

Of course, don’t overuse that strategy either, lest the more curmudgeonly portion of the population labels you a Pollyanna. Just make sure your ideas really are worth it.