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A pessimistic view of optimistic belief updating

Shah, P; Harris, AJL; Bird, G; Catmur, C; Hahn, U; (2016) A pessimistic view of optimistic belief updating. Cognitive Psychology , 90 pp. 71-127. 10.1016/j.cogpsych.2016.05.004. Green open access

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Abstract

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.

Type: Article
Title: A pessimistic view of optimistic belief updating
Open access status: An open access version is available from UCL Discovery
DOI: 10.1016/j.cogpsych.2016.05.004
Publisher version: http://doi.org/10.1016/j.cogpsych.2016.05.004
Language: English
Additional information: Copyright © 2016 The Author(s). Published by Elsevier Inc. This is an open access article under the CC BY license (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/).
Keywords: Unrealistic Optimism, Optimism Bias, motivated reasoning, human rationality, belief updating, Bayesian belief updating
UCL classification: UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > School of Life and Medical Sciences
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > School of Life and Medical Sciences > Faculty of Brain Sciences
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > School of Life and Medical Sciences > Faculty of Brain Sciences > Div of Psychology and Lang Sciences
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > School of Life and Medical Sciences > Faculty of Brain Sciences > Div of Psychology and Lang Sciences > Experimental Psychology
URI: http://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/1493340
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