Optimists make prediction errors in the direction of thinking things will work out better than they actually do.
Pessimists’ prediction errors tend to be in the other direction.
If someone says ”I am an optimist,” what they are saying is:
- I know that I make errors in a specific direction.
- I am not interested in adjusting my predictions to be less biased.
- I want you to know that I make errors in that direction.
If one observes that they are making errors in one direction, you would think that they would take that into account when they make new predictions. That doesn’t seem to be the case for self-declared optimists and pessimists. They know that they make these errors, and plan to continue doing so.
Why systematic bias?
One could argue that it’s good to be an optimist. Perhaps it’s like a placebo. For example, from this review paper,
one of the striking correlates of optimism is good health (e.g., Peterson, 1988; Peterson, Seligman, & Vaillant, 1988; Scheier & Carver, 1987, 1992). This link seems to reflect several different pathways, including immunological robustness (Kamen-Siegel, Rodin, Seligman, & Dwyer, 1991; Scheier et al., 1999; Segerstrom, Taylor, Kemeny, & Fahey, 1998; Udelman, 1982), absence of negative mood (Weisse, 1992), and health-promoting behavior (Peterson, Seligman, Yurko, Martin, & Friedman, 1998).
One also could argue that there are benefits to being a pessimist. If you have low expectations, you will never disappointed. If you assume people don’t like you, you won’t get hurt.
In both cases, though, the errors you make can be harmful. The optimist might use resources on tasks that had no chance of success, when they could have been using those resources elsewhere. Pessimists might miss out on opportunities because they unrealistically assume it won’t work out.
So why are there few self-proclaimed neutralists (realists?), people who say “I make errors, but they tend to be distributed equally in the positive and negative directions”?
Why tell people that you are systematically biased?
The optimist might be signaling that good things are going to happen to them. That they are going to be successful. That they are going to achieve high status. Also, most people want to believe the best about the future. The optimist is telling people what they want to hear. They are signaling “if you hang out with me, not only will good things happen to me, but I’ll make you feel good about the future.” Seems like the type of attitude that people might be drawn to. So by declaring their bias, the optimist might be more attractive to potential future friends.
I’m not sure what the pessimist gains by declaring their bias. There must be something. We humans don’t tend declare things without purpose. Any thoughts?