Pandemic Optimism: Realistic v Hopeful

Joan Costa-Font, London School of Economics & Political Science

Optimism encompasses a ‘positive anchoring’ in risk decision making. This can be a coping mechanism to overcome the anxiety of risk in a pandemic. However, this is only true when people adopt a form of ‘realistic optimism’, which should be distinguished from ‘hopeful optimism’.  Behavioural interventions can play a role in building realistic optimism in people before they are hit by a pandemic.

Optimism bias refers to the ‘tendency’ to anchor our evaluation of future events on its positive  or beneficial effects. This is why we may expect to live longer, or believe we have an above-average chance of overcoming a disease (e.g., cancer). In a pandemic, optimism can act as a coping mechanism to deal with the anxiety of contagion, and the fatigue resulting from restrictions to mobility and social activities. On the other hand excessive, unfounded or ‘hopeful optimism’ can do real harm, supporting risk-seeking behaviours and even pandemic denial. The benefits of rational optimism are, however, vital in resilience to catastrophic events and subsequent recovery. 

A wealth of evidence suggests that optimists are more resilient to adversity. A study of people who were hit by the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York shows that more optimistic people were more resilient and more capable of overcoming the emotional effects of the attack.  Optimistic people exhibit elevated life satisfaction, lower stress and blood pressure, generally better health and greater longevity than pessimists.

Optimism increases with risk knowledge and sense of control. The more we know about the pandemic the more optimistic we become. In my own research, we found that people are more optimistic with regards to perceived risks over which they feel some control; thus they are more optimistic in relation to the consumption of genetically-modified foods or in the use of mobile phones than they are over risks related to radioactive waste or climate change

 ‘Optimistic Realists’ and ‘Optimistic hopefuls’

However,  it is important to distinguish ‘optimismic realists’ from what we might call ‘optimistic hopefuls’. Optimistic realists do appreciate and reflect upon the risks and benefits of the events and actions they face. They simply take a more ’positive’ reading of their actions than pessimists. In contrast, optimistic hopefuls, develop false narratives or believe fake news and are more likely to support denial of the COVID-19 pandemic altogether or the benefits of vaccination.  

Can we use choice architecture for optimistic realism?

  1. SocialisationTwin studies document that 25% of optimism is not inherited. This suggests that optimism can be learned, especially during an individual’s impressionable years, at home, at school, or in college. Hence, if governments expect individuals to be resilient during pandemics, they should invest ahead in developing the resources to produce more ‘optimistic’ individuals. 
  2. Monitoring risk narratives: Communications can draw on representation biases to mitigate the ‘negative media bias’ in a pandemic, and provide as much accurate information as possible to nurture a ‘sense of control’ in people.  They can praise widespread compliance with pandemic control measures and its positive effects; shorter lockdowns, faster economic recovery, or potentially positive knock-on effects of the pandemic on climate change, improvements in work-life balance, and renewed altruism and reciprocity, etc. Better data dissemination can boost the potential for realistic optimism. 
  3. Prompts and reminders : policy can remind individuals of the ultimate ‘short term’ nature of pandemic disruption. Mentally planning for a post-pandemic life and “brighter tomorrow” should  strengthen or restore the personal locus of control, supporting optimistic realism. 

Nonetheless, such interventions should be ‘pareto improving’ and be put in place alongside other forms of support for those who face adversity and vulnerability in a pandemic, who are beyond the reach of optimistic realism . For example, key workers and vulnerable communities may face unusually high and unavoidable exposure to the risks of virus transmission in their daily lives. Similarly those who have lost friends and family in a pandemic will find it harder to see ““light at the end of the tunnel”. Stepping over the mark into the promotion of optimistic hopefulness rather than optimistic realism risks reducing the welfare of many.

An understanding of the power of optimism and the difference between realistic and merely hopeful optimism could be a powerful force in shaping public policy for pandemics and other major challenges to socio-economic confidence and wellbeing.