Optimism bias: from cognitive research to practical advice

This article in Time doesn’t say anything that research hasn’t known about for years, but it does it in a very accessible way. And I suspect that most IEs aren’t following the cognition research as hard core as us specialists.  So I recommend to anyone that it is a good, short, skimmable, read.  It has some good insights for systems design, management, and living your life.

The purpose of the article is to explain why we tend to have an optimism bias, from an evolutionary perspective and neurophysiologically. Then it discusses the effects of this bias on typical lifestyle choices, which is why I am recommending it.  It can also impact how workers make decisions in naturalistic environments. If you attended any of my IIE talks last week, you have some idea of what I am referring to.

One simple example, is that being optimistic reduces stress, boosts the immune system, and reduces illness.  So if it reduces your health care costs (for the company too), then everyone wins.

A more direct example is the impact on worker decision making.  If they are expecting positive results, it changes the paths they take when problem solving and innovating.  They work harder at it, but also pursue paths with superior results.  Pessimists tend to take paths that minimize the worst case, but may not have any good results.  Of course, optimism doesn’t lead to the optimal path every time, but on average it leads to better paths than neutral and pessimistic outlooks.

So in the great words of Bobby McFerrin, “Don’t worry . . . Be happy.”

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