Optimism vs Pessimism in Associations

11th March 2018

To reach successful and rational business outcomes, especially in associations, it is very important to acquire rationality and flexibility in a context – let’s call it cognition – that is rigid and reactive, oriented toward learned rather than learning behaviour, and based on beliefs rather than evidence. In practice, we must be aware of some of the cognitive biases that affect us. In this article, I will examine the negativity bias vs. the optimist bias, and how it relates to associations.

Take a glass and fill it half way with water. Should it be considered as being half full (an optimist stance) or half empty (a pessimist one)? Psychological research on both optimism and pessimism can help us cope with these two peculiar inclinations. We must keep in mind that our evolutionary past forged us having both. Individually, we were obliged to defend ourselves against the predators lurking in a harsh environment, and this forced us to be suspicious. Collectively, we dared to take on risky projects that, for instance, allowed us to invade all corners of our planet. The coexistence of theses notions in us could be problematic, because in problem-solving and decision-making situations they play an important, if not fundamental, role. Sir Winston Churchill rightly said once: “A pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty”.

Happiness never makes a good story

Pessimism can stem from the negativity bias, a psychological phenomenon that always occurs: we tend to give more importance and weight to negative experiences and information. Across almost all domains of life, we seem to be, more often than not, overly pessimistic. We all notice first a dark face in a crowd, not a happy one. We have a very rich vocabulary for pain, but not for the description of physical pleasure. The wars have poured rivers of ink and created mileage of movies; happiness, it is said, has never made a good story. And the list goes on. There is a plausible evolutionary explanation for this: the harsh environment in our distant past forced us to react promptly to threats. Being sensitive and reactive was essential. To imagine and to anticipate catastrophic scenarios actually helped us, in some way, to prevent them. This pessimistic feature in us is deeply-rooted.

The other side of the coin, optimism, could be wired in our brains as well. Without this feature, after all, we would never have colonized the whole Earth. Schoolchildren and adults over 60 see, studies show, the glass half full: this does not happen in other phases of life. In general, however, as individuals we tend to consider ourselves a little superior to other mortals. In the US, 90 percent of males are convinced to drive their car optimally compared to others; financial advisors are sure to be in tune with the markets (which, data show, they are not); small entrepreneurs believe that they will succeed in the great majority of cases (unfortunately for them, this does not always happen: their commercial mortality is very high).

This optimism can be found in one particular talent humans have: mental time travel, or the possibility that our mind has to move back and forth through time and space. Something that was essential when there was a need to envision a different time and place, for, again, our survival. We all know that optimists live longer because they are healthier than pessimists. But we are also aware that excessive optimism can be counter-effective, as it can lead to illusion. Steve Jobs, for example, when he discovered he was suffering from cancer became vegan and looked for a treatment on the net, blatantly refusing surgery. Reality didn’t stand a chance against his excessive optimism.

The power of cognitive biases

The problem is awareness. We have a tendency to recognise the power of cognitive biases in others but to be blind to their influence on our own beliefs. In fact, we usually consider ourselves as relatively unbiased compared with others. For example, if we take an IQ test and we score badly, we think that that test is wrong and we search for another test. Horoscopes are another example. Our brain’s illusions must be identified, in order to give sense to them. Once we are aware of our optimistic illusions, we can act to protect ourselves.

In associations it is important to remember that collectively we lean towards pessimism, but individually we are more inclined to optimism. Despite the fact that the negativity bias exists and induces us to pessimism, we are indeed preternaturally optimists, at an individual level. Vital decisions, like those finance- or future-related, should be, in this contex,  taken collectively, and association boards should be diverse (in terms of gender, geographic areas, ages, etc.).

For example, women belonging to the so-called developing countries lack purchasing power, therefore tend to be pessimist. Data from US and European Gallup opinion polls show that differences in optimism and in perceived stock market risk between gender can explain why women hold an average less risky portfolio than men. Swedish data on more than 235,000 respondents show that women are less optimist than men regarding the future economy of their country. However, during economic crisis both genders lower their expectations for the present and future at the same level, depending on the quantity and quality of information available. There is also the belief that female pessimism about pay could sustain the gender pay gap. Fluctuations between optimism and pessimism are normal. Only teamwork and teambuilding activities can curb their potentially harmful consequences.

Franco Viviani is the former President of the International Council for Physical Activity and Fitness Research (ICPAFR) and a professor of anthropology at the University of Padua, Italy.

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