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Optimism During the Pandemic: a harmful bias?

Almost a year has passed since the pandemic flipped life upside down, and the world is still trying to adjust to the current reality. The coronavirus didn’t only affect economic and social cycles, but also the mental state of people from all around the world. Thus, while some battled depression, others held on to optimistic thoughts as a lifeboat shielding them from the vicious waves of reality. Each person tried to cope in their own ways. However, new behavioral psychologists’ analysis is revealing that both reactions are unhelpful. In fact, studies are showing that the Coronavirus epidemic is taking advantage of human optimism while establishing a phenomenon known as “optimism bias”.

What is the optimism bias?

According to psychologists, optimism bias is a psychological tendency that distances individuals from dangerous realities. Thus, it makes them believe that bad things won’t happen to them. “Optimism bias is well established in over 30 years of research,” Psychologist Marie Helweg-Larsen explained. “Smokers think that they are less at risk than other smokers for getting lung cancer, people who are married think that they are less at risk than other married people at getting a divorce and so on.”

Thus, in this case, many people from all around the world believed that the bad scary virus isn’t going to hurt them. It doesn’t matter whether they believe in the coronavirus’s danger. Their mind already distanced them from current events.  

“This is very typical of what optimism bias is,” Tali Sharot, a cognitive neuroscientist at University College London and lead author of the study, said. “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.”

A useful mental tool

While talking about the subject, Larsen stated carefully that optimism bias doesn’t equal denial about the coronavirus or its risks. It is more of a coping mechanism rather than an illness. “Sometimes people will say, ‘Well, people are just stupid,'” she said. “And that’s really not what our research shows. Our research shows that people wear rose-colored glasses. They view their world in optimistic ways that objectively can seem difficult to understand.”

On the other hand, recent observations showed that paying more attention to said dangers is increasing the individuals’ sense of optimism bias.  “The more that we think that we can estimate risk and rationalize and gather information, in many ways, we are also more vulnerable to being led astray,” she said. 

“Trying to estimate … the risk of various behaviors is extraordinarily difficult,” she continued. “Sometimes it’s actually better to just dial down the risk estimation and instead follow the rules without trying to worry about whether a mask or not makes perfect sense.”

Underestimating the situation

This bias has thus led people from all over the globe to underestimate the situation. Therefore, this mentality played the main role in escalating the pandemic. Even among those who believed in the coronavirus’s danger, many underestimated its reach. “Unlike a wolf stalking you, we can’t see the threat, so we discount it,” noted Jed Magen, chair of the department of psychiatry at Michigan State University.

Furthermore, since humans are social creatures, people often inflate shared beliefs. In the era of social media, one bias can create a ripple effect that touches billions of lives. “Our risk perception goes haywire in the presence of peers,” Daniel Lapsley, professor of psychology at the University of Notre Dame said, noting how mask-wearing has become weaponized in the U.S. as a “token of what tribe one belongs to.”

Cautious optimism

The existence of bias optimism doesn’t mean that there is no room for a realistic cautious form of optimism. In fact, sharing a better approach to optimism will help greatly, especially during these tiring times. People just need to adjust their expectations based on facts and not rumurs. They need to have more faith in science and one another.  Moreover, they need to ditch the half cup approach, which is not an easy task. 

“Many individuals are feeling stressed out and exhausted during this confusing time of uncertainty, are experiencing anxiety, and are worried,” said Eric Zillmer, professor of neuropsychology at Drexel University. “For the most part, I believe we need more optimism, not less.”


Does the Coronavirus Epidemic Take Advantage of Human Optimism Bias? (2020). PubMed Central (PMC)., K. (2020, October 23). Why optimism could be unhelpful in a pandemic, according to behavioral psychologists. CNBC. Bottemanne1,2*, Orphée Morlaàs1, Philippe Fossati1,2† and Liane Schmidt1*†. (2020). Does the Coronavirus Epidemic Take Advantage of Human Optimism Bias? Frontiersin., M. K. (2021, January 11). What Is Optimism Bias, And How Is It Affecting Our Response To The. Wisconsin Public Radio.