A pessimistic view of optimistic belief updating

Punit Shah, Adam J L Harris, Geoffrey Bird, Caroline Catmur, Ulrike Hahn

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

50 Citations (SciVal)


Received academic wisdom holds that human judgment is characterized by unrealistic optimism, the tendency to underestimate the likelihood of negative events and overestimate the likelihood of positive events. With recent questions being raised over the degree to which the majority of this research genuinely demonstrates optimism, attention to possible mechanisms generating such a bias becomes ever more important. New studies have now claimed that unrealistic optimism emerges as a result of biased belief updating with distinctive neural correlates in the brain. On a behavioral level, these studies suggest that, for negative events, desirable information is incorporated into personal risk estimates to a greater degree than undesirable information (resulting in a more optimistic outlook). However, using task analyses, simulations, and experiments we demonstrate that this pattern of results is a statistical artifact. In contrast with previous work, we examined participants' use of new information with reference to the normative, Bayesian standard. Simulations reveal the fundamental difficulties that would need to be overcome by any robust test of optimistic updating. No such test presently exists, so that the best one can presently do is perform analyses with a number of techniques, all of which have important weaknesses. Applying these analyses to five experiments shows no evidence of optimistic updating. These results clarify the difficulties involved in studying human 'bias' and cast additional doubt over the status of optimism as a fundamental characteristic of healthy cognition.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)71-127
Number of pages57
JournalCognitive Psychology
Early online date16 Aug 2016
Publication statusPublished - 30 Nov 2016


  • Adult
  • Bayes Theorem
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Judgment
  • Male
  • Models, Psychological
  • Optimism
  • Pessimism
  • Risk
  • Young Adult
  • Journal Article


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