Why It's Not in Our Nature To Look On the Bright Side—Except For Optimistic Sports Fans

Dutch football fans
Dutch football fans react as their team scores against Chile during World Cup 2014 as they watch on a screen set-up at the FIFA Fan Fest on Copacabana Beach, Rio de Janeiro, June 23, 2014. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The widely-held view that people naturally look on the bright side of life may be wrong—unless you are a loyal sports fan.

For decades, scientists have believed it is normal to expect good things to happen in the future and under-estimate the possibility of bad outcomes—a trait known as "irrational optimism bias."

But a U.K. study suggests this assumption may be based on flawed research. After reassessing the evidence, scientists concluded there was no basis for the claim that optimism bias is fundamental to human psychology.

The findings are important because belief in the trait can affect the way policy-makers deal with issues ranging from financial crises to obesity and climate change. It is even taken into account by governments when planning and funding large infrastructure projects.

But there is still ample evidence for optimism in real-world situations, such as England football fans, according to researchers.

Study author Dr Adam Harris, from University College London, said: "Previous studies, which have used flawed methodologies to claim that people are optimistic across all situations and that this bias is 'normal,' are now in serious doubt. We need to look for new ways of studying optimism bias to establish whether it is a universal feature of human cognition or not.

"This assumption that people are optimistically biased is being used to guide large infrastructure projects, with the aim of managing expectations around how much projects will cost and how long they will take to complete. Our research supports a reexamination of optimism bias before allowing it to guide clinical research and policy."

Co-author Punit Shah, from King's College London, said: "There is ample evidence for optimism bias in various real-world situations—England football fans, for example—but these instances simply show that certain people might be optimistic in certain situations, not that they are generally optimistic."