Unrealistic optimism, suggested by LeJeune and Alex in 1973, was described as the “illusion of unique invulnerability.” It was further developed by Weinstein (1980) in an article on individual perceptions of future life events. This illusion refers to an individual’s tendency to believe oneself invulnerable or at very low risk of suffering misfortune and victimization. It does not refer to the perceptions of individuals who have been victims of a particular misfortune. However, victim experience with one misfortune does not negate unrealistic optimism regarding other misfortunes.
Unrealistically optimistic persons believe others may be more susceptible to such victimization (a pessimistic bias regarding others). The optimism is considered “unrealistic” because, except in extremely skewed distributions, a vast majority of a population cannot be less vulnerable than average . Most unrealistic optimism research has focused on health risk perceptions. Other risk topics have explored the potential of being an earthquake victim or suffering a divorce. Weinstein argued that unrealistically optimistic judgments regarding one’s future life could be risky, dangerous, and potentially harmful (Weinstein et al. 2005). The unrealistic optimism bias also applies to positive events; for example, that one is more likely than others to benefit in the future, such as enjoying success in marriage or financial rewards.
A comparison of self to others is at the perception’s core. One’s own perceived chances of future misfortune are evaluated against others’ perceived chances, and a biased discrepancy results in the direction of optimism for self (Gunther & Mundy 1993) and pessimism for others (Culbertson & Stempel 1985). This tendency is similar to perceptions of mass media effects, where individuals are apt to see others as more influenced by media messages than themselves.
However, these perceptual judgments are affected by the degree of personal involvement. It is important to differentiate between judgments concerning personal risk susceptibility (often based on personal experience and interpersonal communications) and judgments involving increased susceptibilities of generalized others in society (notably as influenced by mass media; Glynn et al. 1995). In addition to being conceptualized as predictors of vulnerability and risk perceptions, unrealistic optimism and impersonal impact contribute to third-person effect outcomes (Brosius & Engel 1996).
Sears (1983) argued that “person-positivity bias” might be a factor in unrealistic optimism. The person-positivity bias posits that an individual typically values individual members of a group more than the group as a collective entity. When the individual is asked to compare perceptions of personal future risk with that of others, it may make a difference to whom the self is being compared. Accordingly, investigators have collected data using referent others who vary in proximity, familiarity, similarity, and importance to the self. Comparisons range from same-sex best friend, to a randomly selected known other, to “average,” “typical,” “most others known,” or a collective societal mass. At least one study found no person-positivity bias; however, the possible influence of proximity, familiarity, similarity, and importance with the compared other requires further research with varied subject pools, respondent samples, different risk contexts, etc.
Unrealistic optimism’s roles in theory building range from independent to moderator to dependent variable. Schemas that conceive of unrealistic optimism as a dependent variable, for example, argue its dependence upon influences such as cultural socialization (Heine & Lehman 1995), gender differentials regarding perceived personal risk (Lin & Raghubir 2005), age, locus of control, and degree of familiarity with the other to whom self is compared.
- Brosius, H., & Engel, D. (1996). The causes of third-person effects: Unrealistic optimism, impersonal impact, or generalized negative attitudes toward media influence? International Journal of Public Opinion Research, 8, 142–162.
- Culbertson, H. M., & Stempel G. H., III (1985). “Media malaise”: Explaining personal optimism and societal pessimism about health care. Journal of Communication, 35(2), 180–190.
- Glynn, C. J., Ostman, R. E., & McDonald, D. G. (1995). Opinions, perception, and social reality. In T. L. Glasser & C. T. Salmon (eds.), Public opinion and the communication of consent. New York: Guilford, pp. 249–277.
- Gunther, A. C., & Mundy, P. (1993). Biased optimism and the third-person effect. Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, 70, 58–67.
- Heine, S. J., & Lehman, D. R. (1995). Cultural variation in unrealistic optimism: Does the west feel more invulnerable than the east? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 68, 595– 607.
- LeJeune, R., & Alex, N. (1973). On being mugged: The event and its aftermath. Urban Life and Culture, 2, 259–287.
- Lin, Y., & Raghubir, P. (2005). Gender differences in unrealistic optimism about marriage and divorce: Are men more optimistic and women more realistic? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 31, 198–207.
- Sears, D. O. (1983). The person-positivity bias. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 44, 233– 250.
- Weinstein, N. D. (1980). Unrealistic optimism about future life events. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 39, 806–820.
- Weinstein, N. D., Marcus, S. E., & Moser, R. P. (2005). Smokers’ unrealistic optimism about their risk. Tobacco Control, 14, 55–59.