Why we expect the best (and find it hard to prepare for the worst)

Most college counselors have stories about students whose approach to the admissions process is (in the words of the old song) to “accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative.” These students, who end up with an overabundance of “reach” schools on their final college lists, just can’t be persuaded to add one or two more likely options to their rosters. Even when face to face with data predicting negative outcomes, they remain cheerily (and sometimes eerily) optimistic.

Have you ever wondered what’s going on in the heads of those students, and why their optimism prevails against all odds?

I recently learned that this predisposition toward optimism is a well-researched phenomenon.  One of the most frequently referenced studies, conducted by psychologist Neil Weinstein, found a consistent pattern of thinking among subjects when they were asked to assess the likelihood of experiencing a set of future life events.  In a nutshell, Weinstein concluded that subjects “expect others to be the victims of misfortune, not themselves.”  He continued,”such ideas imply not merely a hopeful outlook on life, but an error in judgment that can be labeled unrealistic optimism.”  In this study, Weinstein identified cognitive and motivational factors that could account for this “optimism bias,”  For example, the perceived desirability of the event and the perceived control-ability of the outcome could amplify a subject’s optimism.  He also demonstrated that an “optimism bias” arose because subjects would “focus on factors that improve their own chances of achieving desirable outcomes and fail to realize that others [had] just as many factors in their favor.”

Student behavior that bears out Weinstein’s findings appears every day in the college admissions realm.  College counselors see the optimism bias in action when students overestimate their chances of admission to a college or set of colleges, believing that other applicants will suffer the misfortune of a “deny” decision, not they.  I’ll bet most college counselors can also vouch for the fact that student optimism about a positive outcome is heightened when they focus on one college as the “perfect match.”  (“I just know I’ll get in if I apply Early Decision…”)  Students can also be led to unrealistically optimistic predictions about their chances of admission because they do have a measure of control over the outcomes.  They choose where to apply, after all, and many invest a great deal of time throughout high school developing the best possible academic and co-curricular records, prepping for standardized tests, and making use of all available resources when completing their applications.  It’s not surprising, then, that so many college applicants display the optimism bias.

Intriguingly, recent studies have moved beyond examination of cognitive and motivational factors that influence the optimism bias. The work of neuropsychologist Tali Sharot indicates that it may have a neurological basis.  In other words, humans may be “hard-wired” for optimism. As reported by NPR, Sharot and her colleagues have located two areas of the brain which appear to influence the way in which subjects process positive and negative information. As the NPR report noted, “when she temporarily disables the normal functioning of the brain areas using a magnetic field, Sharot finds that the bias disappears.” (Those interested in learning more can check out Sharot’s book, The Optimism Bias, or watch her TED talk, available here.)

Important disclaimer: I am not even remotely suggesting that college counselors attempt similar neurological manipulations on students (or their parents) who just can’t bring themselves to adjust overly-aspirational college lists. (Though it is certainly tempting to consider the possibility…)

Neuropsychologists and social scientists have added much to our understanding of human nature and the way we respond to people and events — but then, so have creative artists.  My reading about the optimism bias has given me a renewed appreciation of the song I mentioned at the beginning of this post, “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive,” by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer. Arlen and Mercer nailed it back in 1944, with a description of the effect as good as any provided by subsequent researchers:

You’ve got to accentuate the positive
Eliminate the negative
And latch on to the affirmative
Don’t mess with Mister In-Between

You’ve got to spread joy up to the maximum
Bring gloom down to the minimum
Have faith or pandemonium’s
Liable to walk upon the scene

With the bulk of college admissions decisions arriving in the next few weeks, it strikes me that the second verse also serves as good advice for students anxiously awaiting the news. If we are in fact “hard-wired” for optimism, this is surely the time to take advantage of it.