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Why optimism won’t assist in a pandemic, in keeping with behavioral psychologists

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As humans, we tend to overestimate the likelihood of positive events and underestimate the likelihood of negative events.

In normal circumstances, that's all well and good: Such an attitude increases positivity and decreases anxiety, which contributes to good physical and mental health. But it's less so during a pandemic, when our tendency to emphasize positive outcomes could endanger ourselves and others, behavioral psychologists say.

It's what is known as the "optimism bias," and experts claim it has become tangible as people shut out the individual threat from Covid-19 despite being aware of the risk to others. In a study conducted in three phases earlier this year, researchers found that the majority of people, regardless of age or gender, were at lower risk for the virus than the average person.

"This is very typical of optimism," Tali Sharot, a cognitive neuroscientist at University College London and lead author of the study told CNBC Make It. "They usually believe that your likelihood of experiencing negative events is less than people like you , and you are more likely to experience positive events than other people like you. "

Underestimate the risks

The phenomenon of optimism bias is, in part, a result of our tendency to imagine more vivid positive future events and then ascribe more probability to them, said Sharot, whose book of the same name deals with the subject.

Unlike a wolf chasing you, we cannot see the threat, so we reduce it.

Every stomach

Chair of Psychiatry at Michigan State University

It has uses in all walks of life from careers and finance to relationships, but under the pandemic, it's had a troubling impact on our ability to calculate risk. And that's just getting worse over time and the virus threat is normalizing, she said.

"I think the risk is greater now because we're used to this threat. And when you get used to a threat, you underestimate it even more," said Sharot.

Compound prejudices

This is made worse by other compound prejudices.

Confirmation bias, or what is known as symmetrical updates, causes people to selectively ingest information that reflects their preferred narrative. Meanwhile, the tendency towards salience leads people to overemphasize what they can see and underestimate what they can't – healthy people on the street or sick people in the hospital, for example – making it harder to take the risks detect.

Ridofranz | iStock | Getty Images

"Unlike a wolf chasing you, we can't see the threat, so we're ruling it out," noted Jed Magen, chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at Michigan State University.

In addition, when we form networks of people who share our views, those biases are often inflated by others, said Daniel Lapsley, professor of psychology at Notre Dame University.

"Our perceptions of risk get mixed up in the presence of their peers," he said, noting that wearing masks in the US has been armed as "a sign of tribe you belong to".

Ability to change

However, such susceptibility also gives the experts the opportunity to change their mindset.

"People can change too," said Jonathan Alpert, psychotherapist and author of "Be Fearless: Change Your Life in 28 Days." Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie admitted he was "wrong" for not wearing a mask after testing positive for Covid-19 and now "urging people to wear masks" he noticed.

This requires better guidance from government and policy makers to ensure people fully understand the risks of the virus, Sharot said, as well as more critical thinking from individuals.

Ask yourself: What is the cost of not taking action? … What are the facts – not your prejudices?

Jonathan Alpert

Psychotherapist and author

"Ask yourself, what does it cost not to take action? What is the potential gain in taking action? Perhaps most importantly, what are the facts – not your prejudices?" noted Alpert.

In view of the ongoing pandemic and the uncertain outcome, however, the experts agree that there is still room for a healthy dose of "cautious" optimism.

"Many people feel stressed and exhausted, fearful and worried during this confusing time of uncertainty," said Eric Zillmer, professor of neuropsychology at Drexel University. "I think we need mostly more optimism, not less."

To hear from top personal finance experts and get critical advice on spending and saving to stay financially alive, join us CNBC Path Forward: Your Money Summit November 17th with Suze Orman, Patriots linebacker Brandon Copeland, Budgetnista founder Tiffany Aliche and more.

Do not miss: Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce, developed this mindset to guide us through the crisis

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Katherine Clark