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The eternal optimist?

Dr Raj Persaud
Consultant Psychiatrist at The Maudsley Hospital, London

Psychologists Justin Kruger and Jeremy Burrus at the University of Illinois, USA, have recently come up with an exciting new psychological theory about how you should view your chances of success when confronted with a tricky task.
Their work centres on a central psychological issue that is how optimistic or pessimistic we are about our chances of achieving what we want in life. Obviously it makes sense that a certain amount of optimism is vital in helping us take on difficult tasks and face the hardships involved. If we didn't believe we were going to be successful in the long run, what would sustain us during the horrible patches when there is no light at the end of the tunnel?
While a certain amount of optimism is a good thing, it's also possible that too much optimism, or unrealistic optimism, might be very bad for you motivationally. It could be that if you overestimate your chances of eventual success then you don't try hard because you complacently believe it's all going to be okay in the end anyway.
Kruger and Burrus point out that unrealistic optimism is a widespread and deeply ingrained part of our psyche, as has been demonstrated over many years by numerous psychology experiments.
For example, in the late 1970s psychologist Neil Weinstein asked 258 students to compare their chances of experiencing several events, some desirable (eg, living past 80, owning a home) and some undesirable (eg, heart attack before age 40, lung cancer), with those of the average person. If participants were accurate in their assessments they should, on average, have rated themselves as just as likely to experience the event as the average person. They did not, however. On average, participants estimated that they were more likely than the average student to experience the desirable events and less likely to experience the undesirable events.
Weinstein's results were exciting because they made two very important points about human judgement. The first was that people seem to be unrealistically optimistic about the future. The second was that people possess a remarkable capacity to believe whatever they want.
Kruger and Burrus suggest that when people compare their likelihood of experiencing an event with that of the average person, they focus on their own likelihood and not the chances of the average person experiencing the same . As a consequence, the answer to the question "How likely am I to experience the event in comparison with the average person?" is based far more on people's assessments of their own chances than on their assessment of the average person's chances of experiencing the same event.
Why do people focus on their own likelihood of experiencing an event when making comparative predictions? One reason stems from what might be termed egocentrism, the notion that the self figures more prominently in judgement than others. Because people typically have more information about themselves than they have about others, information about the self is likely to be more accessible, and thus more likely to be automatically and spontaneously retrieved.
Might the same not apply to nursing? We tend to focus on our own situation and not consider the difficulties involved in the average hospital or service achieving its aims. If we want to genuinely be above average we need to not be unrealistically optimistic about the ease of achieving this and to work hard to overcome difficulties.
The key finding from the research is that we need to guard against unrealistic optimism and the tendency to inaccurately assess how likely future events are. We need to be good at assessing the probability of the future because this influences our behaviour today.

Raj Persaud is author of The Motivated Mind published by Bantam Press, ISBN 0593046951.