“One thing a person cannot do, no matter how rigorous his analysis or heroic his imagination is to draw up a list of things that would never occur to him.” Thomas Schelling Economist and Nobel laureate
Whenever and wherever I speak in the world, sharing my story and the teaching moments of being the whistleblower for ‘South Africa’s Enron’, I’m surprised to hear the defensive voices of invulnerability. “But the whistleblowing laws will protect me” “Anyway, that would never happen here” ” We have a hotline now, so our culture is open” “That would never happen to me” and “Speaking up is no big deal. I’m not looking to be friends; I’d just tell whoever was unethical that I’d report them”. My response is to tell them that what they’re saying is the equivalent of saying “I’m Schindler, I would have saved the Jews” No you wouldn’t, that’s why nobody did.
So what are we up against that drives us to believe and respond in this way?
Will the answer provide a reason for why we no longer notice special qualities in others or feel we have nothing to learn from anyone?
To begin our exploration, let’s focus on marriage: in the Western world, divorce rates are about 40%. That means that out of five married couples, two will end up splitting their assets. But when you ask newlyweds about their own likelihood of divorce, they estimate it at 0%. An additional example is that when Harvard MBA students in study groups were asked to estimate what portion of their group’s work each had done, the totals for each study group averaged 139%.
What’s going on?
We like to think of ourselves as rational creatures. We watch our backs, weigh the odds, pack an umbrella. But both neuroscience and social science suggest that we are more optimistic than realistic. Research by Dr Tali Sharot shows that, on average, we expect things to turn out better than they wind up being. People hugely underestimate their chances of getting divorced, losing their job or being diagnosed with cancer; they expect their children to be extraordinarily gifted; envision themselves achieving more than their peers; and overestimate their likely life span (sometimes by 20 years or more).
Watch a 1 min video below and challenge yourself with Dr Sharots’ list of optimistic abilities
Remember the horrors of the London Plague? The plague killed a quarter of Londoners in eighteen months but individuals believed that whilst it would probably kill their neighbours, they themselves would survive.
Optimism is not always your friend.
The Optimism Bias can lead to Blind Optimism, which is just Gambling.
Credibility is not impartial; your willingness to believe a prediction, is influenced by how much you need that prediction to be true. You’ll believe anything when the stakes are high enough and you’ve got ‘skin in the game’. That’s because predictions are influenced by our own attempt to maintain our Self Concept, what we believe about ourselves, and therefore our credibility. Here’s a simple question to spot gaps in your own thinking: “What do I want to be true?” If you’re broke, you want the get-rich-quick scheme to be true. If you run a startup, you want the questionable growth metrics to be true, if you’re ethical, you want to believe you’ll be heard speaking up. It’s easy to fool yourself when you want to be fooled.
Speaking Up, Listening Up and Whistleblowing is fraught with Psychological Conflict.
Your brain will probably fail at incorporating the unexpected, bad news stated in the above sentence. And that’s because when you learn of what the future may and could hold, your brain faithfully encodes desirable information that can enhance optimism. The belief that your experience of whistleblowing, speaking up or listening up, and the outcomes for you will be much better than anyone else’s is known as the optimism bias. It abides in every race, region and socioeconomic bracket.
Optimism Bias is aligned with Disaster Risk Assessment models, which usually overlook the difficulties people have in processing low probabilities. Social Scientists, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky noted that people struggleto evaluate low-probability events (such as whistleblowing or speaking up), resulting in them tending to neglect the possibility of them altogether or giving them superficial attention. Neglection and superficial attention can both lead to blind spots, lack of preparation and lack of skill when people find themselves in the Red Zone.
Our overly positive assumptions and blind spots can lead to disastrous miscalculations which in turn lead to overconfidence and optimistically biased predictions. Ignoring negative information and real-world insights can result in faulty assessments and lack of precautionary action causing ill preparedness. We’re then less likely to get health checkups, apply sunscreen or provide training to our employees or upskill ourselves in the ability to engage in Courageous Conversations.
Leg’s drill down.
Research by James A. Shepperd, Patrick Carroll, Jodi Grace and Meredith Terry of the University of Florida, indicate the three drivers of Optimism Bias:
Self-Enhancement, Self Presentation and Comparative Control Illusion
Self Enhancement: Optimistic predictions are gratifying. We are motivated to perceive or portray our risks as less than the risk of others because this is what we want to believe or want others to believe. For example; “Yes, smoking kills — but mostly it kills the other guy.” It simply feels good to think that positive events will happen (or at least are more likely to happen for ourselves than for others). This mindset reduces anxiety and helps us to believe that negative events won’t happen (or at least are less likely to happen to oneself than to others). In short, we can regulate anxiety and other forms of negative affect by concluding that we are and will be better off than others are.
Self Concept: we tend to focus on what we want to happen rather than on what might or will happen. We also attempt to establish and maintain a desired personal image in social life. As in any other social context, we’re motivated to present ourselves in a desired fashion.
Comparative Control Illusion – we all have the motivated tendency to believe that we are better able than are others to control outcomes. This overestimation of personal control may stem from two sources. First, people have a fundamental need for control that may lead to an exaggerated belief in personal control, or perhaps even an objectively unwarranted illusion of control, even for chance events. The net result is that we may overestimate our level of personal control in securing positive and avoiding negative outcomes. Because we don’t have a need for others to enjoy control, we’re unlikely to extend our unrealistic perception of control to other people.
Judgments of comparative risk are made all the time without reference to diagnostic information and real world experience, leading to a lack of contemplation and deliberation. Stated otherwise, people may have developed an almost knee-jerk tendency to perceive themselves as better than average, irrespective of a character trait or situation.
Optimism Bias and Financial Downfalls, New Technologies, Fake News and War
The harmful influences of overoptimism extend to the collective behaviour of groups. For instance, the optimism bias has been named by several economists as one of the core causes of the financial downfall of 2008. Unrealistic expectation of individuals, financial analysts and government officials that the market would continue growing, despite evidence to the contrary, likely contributed to the collapse. This example may be indicative of a trend in which the negative consequences of optimism are especially pronounced in the modern world.
Whether we are dealing with unfamiliar cultures (for example, in political relations) or novel technologies (for example, internet, whistleblowing hotlines and financial markets), fake news and war, modern life is rife with circumstances in which over optimism is likely to arise. The modern world has increased interactions between larger numbers of individuals, and whilst some individual biases may be inconsequential on their own, they can accumulate together to produce a large bubble, such as in the case of the 2008 financial market fall. The research highlights the possibility that the mind has evolved learning mechanisms to mis-predict future occurrences.
The Neuroscience behind Optimism Bias
Imagine you need to pick between two equally attractive job offers. Making a decision may be a tiring, difficult ordeal, but once you make up your mind, something miraculous happens. Suddenly – if you are like most people – you view the chosen offer as better than you did before and conclude that the other option was not that great after all. It seems that our brain possesses the philosopher’s stone that enables us to turn lead into gold .
Our brain is wired to place high value on the events we encounter and put faith in its own decisions. This is true not only when forced to choose between two adverse options (such as selecting between two courses of medical treatment) but also when we are selecting between desirable alternatives. According to social psychologist Leon Festinger, we re-evaluate the options post-choice to reduce the tension that arises from making a difficult decision between equally desirable options.
Optimism is required for Evolution
The only way conscious mental time travel could have arisen over the course of evolution is if it emerged together with irrational optimism.
Our memories play a role because they’re susceptible to inaccuracies. This is partly because the neural system responsible for remembering episodes from our past might not have evolved for memory alone. Rather, the core function of the memory system could in fact be to imagine the future – to enable us to prepare for what has yet to come. If we were not able to picture the world in a hundred years or more, would we be concerned with global warming? Would we attempt to live healthily? Would anyone have blown the whistle or spoken up for a better world? Would we have children? The awareness of mortality on its own would have led evolution to a dead end. The despair would have interfered with our daily function, bringing the activities needed for survival to a stop.
How is it that people maintain a rosy bias even when front line, real world experience that challenges upbeat forecasts about speaking up and whistleblowing is so readily available?
While the past few years have seen important advances in the neuroscience of optimism, one enduring puzzle remained. Why do people readily incorporate favourable news into their existing beliefs, yet tend to underweight the strength of unfavorable information?
“Whenever we are surprised by something, even if we admit that we made a mistake, we say, ‘Oh I’ll never make that mistake again.’ But, in fact, what you should learn when you make a mistake because you did not anticipate something is that the world is difficult to anticipate. That’s the correct lesson to learn from surprises: that the world is surprising.” Daniel Kahneman
Watch this 1 minute video to challenge how you would respond in this context.
Only recently have researchers been able to decipher this mystery, by scanning the brains of people as they process both positive and negative information about the future. The findings are striking: when we learn, our neurons faithfully encode desirable information that can enhance optimism but fail at incorporating unexpectedly undesirable information. When we hear a success story like Mark Zuckerberg’s, our brains take note of the possibility that we too may become immensely rich one day. When we learn of Oprah Winfrey’s success story, our brain takes note and concludes that maybe, we too may become immensely rich one day. But when told the odds of divorce are almost 1 in 2 we take no notice. And when we hear that the odds of speaking up successfully are often rock bottom, these real world insights tend not to make us think that we need to learn the behavioural skills of Speaking Up, Listening Up, and Whistleblowing.
Whether a piece of news is good or bad is critical in determining whether it will alter our beliefs. This is known as a valence-dependent learning asymmetry. For example, when learning that our risk of experiencing future aversive events, such as being fired because of Speaking out, or the likelihood of our retaliation against an individual Speaking Up is higher than we had expected, we are less likely to integrate this data into our prior beliefs . The same pattern emerges when people receive desirable and undesirable information about their financial prospects or feedback about their intellectual abilities, personality or physical traits.
The question then is, how can we remain hopeful – benefiting from the fruits of optimism – while at the same time guarding ourselves from its pitfalls? I believe knowledge and upskilling through training is key. We are not born with an innate understanding of our biases. Once we are made aware of our optimistic illusions, we can act to protect ourselves.
The bad news is that awareness rarely shatters the illusion, action is required.
Thoughts and Suggestions
Don’t be Confident about Predicting Outcomes; there’s too much uncertainty because Whistleblowing, Speaking Up and Listening Up are all characterised by actual tough decision making, often whilst under pressure and in the Red Zone. The hard thing is not ‘figuring out what the right thing to do’ is but mustering the courage and selflessness to actually do it.
“We already have a Culture of Banter. Training to Speak-Listen Up is not for us” Perhaps this is correct. A culture of banter requires no, or very little courage whilst speaking-listening up about unethical, illegitimate behaviour requires plenty. Gone are the days when “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” With social media and numerous apps for online company ratings, employees can air your dirty laundry with the click of a button. You may not be concerned if a disgruntled employee leaves; however, you will be when their review prevents other talented prospects from applying. Take Precautionary Action by training for Courageous Conversations. Speaking Up, Listening Up, Whistleblowing put you and the organisation in a vulnerable position. In mostly all such situations where we strive for the best outcomes we strategise for difficulties by planning ahead through mandatory training, writing exams to qualify or via flight simulations for safe air travel.
If you believe you may have the opportunity to speak or listen up, you can’t just think “I guess I’ll deal with it when it happens”. ThroughCourageous Conversation training we encourage and train for an intentionally induced cognitive intervention called Reality Checking. This strategy directs attention onto the ‘real’ features of a situation compared to anticipated features. This helps maintain psychological distance from cognitive future-past interpretations and allows an individual to view them as mental content rather than reality itself.
Stay Connected to be updated on my research project with Dr Paul Penn at UEL, to create a Virtual Reality simulation to challenge Optimism Bias, in addition to creating a VR Simulation for Courageous Conversations.
Research shows that actually experiencing certain events can reduce the optimism bias and that when perceiving a threat, we keep things real. People show that the largest optimism bias is in situations with the greatest unknowns and a Virtual Reality immersion will replicate real-world, threatening situations effectively and safely, in order to strategise and train to Speak Up, Listen Up and Whistle Blow.
Build Accountability into organisational models. Research shows that our favourable self concepts and self presentations are tempered by accountability constraints.
Volunteer Vulnerability by being willing to admit that you don’t have all the answers and by reaching out to those who do have real-world experience
Move Away from Truth Assumptions to shift your purpose from ‘proving I’m right’ to placing yourself in the pathway of learning
For more, reach out, drop me an email, send me a message.
Since this will be my last blog for 2019, please accept my best wishes for a peaceful, joyous festive season and a very happy 2020.
Keep it Real!