Last year, my life was derailed.
The person I loved and had spent the last seven years with suddenly walked out of my life. I was blindsided. In my mind, we were going to get married, buy a house, have kids. We were best friends, partners in crime, yin and yang. We were unstoppable.
In the months since my breakup I’ve spent countless hours trying to understand why and how this could have happened. Breakups are the kind of thing that happen to other people, I thought. Our relationship was different.
I had become the victim of optimism bias.
It’s a cognitive illusion that over 80 percent of us experience. It’s our tendency to overestimate our likelihood of experiencing good events in our lives and underestimate our likelihood of experiencing bad events. The problem is, we’re oblivious to the bias. So while we often feel like the opinions we have, the predictions we make, and the decisions we carry out are realistic, they may be skewed by this bias.
Let me give you an example. When we make predictions about our likelihood of getting divorced, being in a car accident, or suffering from cancer, we consistently rate the likelihood of these events happening to us as much lower than the actual measured rates of these events happening in a population. In a recent TED Talk, cognitive neuroscientist Tali Sharot says: “In the Western world, divorce rates are about 40 percent…But when you ask newlyweds about their own likelihood of divorce, they estimate it at zero percent. And even divorce lawyers, who should really know better, hugely underestimate their own likelihood of divorce.”
On the flip side, we expect to live longer than average, be more successful in our jobs, and believe that our children are uniquely talented. In Sharot’s research, this bias has been observed in both Western and non-Western cultures, men and women, in kids and seniors. It’s a global phenomenon, and according to Sharot it’s “one of the most consistent, prevalent, and robust biases documented in psychology and behavioral economics.”
We can’t all be better than everyone else, obviously. That’s statistically impossible. But the part of our brain responsible for the bias doesn’t care much for statistics.
One of the best ways to kickstart a successful marketing transformation in your organization could be to simply become aware of how optimism is affecting you and your work.
One important facet of the bias that needs to be considered in a marketing context is how it functions when we’re trying to communicate certain messages to others. Take cigarette packet warnings, for instance. The challenge of developing effective messaging here is hindered by our tendency to believe that the numbers don’t apply to us. Even when you tell people the likelihood of developing lung cancer from smoking, smokers often still believe it doesn’t apply to them. This is a massive challenge for marketing when it comes to public service announcements and health warnings. This may be one reason why we often resort to graphic imagery and shockvertising tactics. These could be the only strategies that speak loud enough to get past our rampant optimism.
One of the benefits of the bias is that it can alter subjective reality. This means that if one of our campaigns crashes and burns, we can avoid being dragged down professionally and emotionally with it. We will often rationalize the loss in a more optimistic way than we would if we just looked at the facts objectively. This enables us to move on with our lives and refocus our attention where it needs to be: on the next steps.
Experiments have even shown that optimism not only leads to perceptions of better outcomes but can actually lead to better outcomes objectively, too. It can work as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Not only that but being optimistic about the future has positive health benefits as it reduces stress and anxiety.
While some optimism may be beneficial, too much can be a bad thing. Sharot says “unrealistic optimism can lead to risky behavior, to financial collapse, to faulty planning.” For marketers, this could mean taking an undue risk on an unconventional marketing approach we feel ought to be successful without developing a feasible backup plan or digging into the extent to which the numbers support our predictions. Or perhaps it leads us to spend too much money on a risky idea where that money would be better spent bolstering a strategy that’s been tested and proven. Science has shown that our tendency is to think our ideas are better than average.
One (optimistic!) suggestion is that if we’re aware that we have this bias, we can adjust our expectations, predictions, decisions and reactions accordingly. Marketers should always consult the numbers when developing and executing marketing strategies, and mitigate risk in a rational way. Two heads are always better than one in this scenario as our optimism only tends to color ourselves, not so much the people around us or society at large. Make it a habit to continually get feedback from colleagues and practice playing devil’s advocate while discussing marketing strategies.
Simply being aware of our optimism bias is a good first step toward a successful marketing transformation, particularly for marketers at large companies and enterprise-level businesses where the stakes are high.
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