Nudges for Unrealistic Optimism

Our society makes fun of the unrealistic optimist all the time, but the reality is that most of us are unreasonably optimistic in many aspects of our life. We might not all believe that we are going to receive a financial windfall this month, that our favorite sports team will go from losing almost all their games last year to the championship this year, or that everyone in our family will suddenly be happy, but we still manage to be more optimistic about most things than is reasonable.


Most people believe they are better than average drivers, even though by definition half the people in a population must be above and half the people below average. Most of us probably think we will get a promotion or raise sometime sooner rather than later, and most of us probably think we will live to be 100 and won’t get cancer, go bald, or be in a serious car crash (after all, we are all above average drivers right?).


Our overconfidence is often necessary for daily life. If you are in sales, you need to be unrealistically optimistic that you are going to get a big sale, or you won’t continue to pick up the phone for cold calls. We would all prefer the surgeon who is more on the overconfident side than the surgeon who doubts their ability and asks us if we finalized our will before going into the operating room. And even just for going to the store, doing a favor for a neighbor, or paying for sports tickets, overconfidence is a feature, not a bug, of our thinking. But still, there are times where overconfidence can be a problem.


2020 is an excellent example. If we all think I’m not going to catch COVID, then we are less likely to take precautions and are more likely to actually catch the disease. This is where helpful nudges can come into play.


In Nudge, Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler write, “If people are running risks because of unrealistic optimism, they might be able to benefit from a nudge. In fact, we have already mentioned one possibility: if people are reminded of a bad event, they may not continue to be so optimistic.”


Reminding people of others who have caught COVID might help encourage people to take appropriate safety precautions. Reminding a person trying to trade stocks of previous poor decisions might encourage them to make better investment choices then trying their hand at day trading. A quick pop-up from a website blocker might encourage someone not to risk checking social media while they are supposed to be working, saving them from the one time their supervisor walks by while they are scrolling through someone’s profile. Overconfidence may be necessary for us, but it can lead to risky behavior and can have serious downfalls. If slight nudges can help push people away from catastrophic consequences from unrealistic optimism, then they should be employed.

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