How to Be Efficiently Pessimistic

People tend to be optimistic, and with good reason. Life is better when you believe you’re capable of achieving your goals. Unfortunately, optimism bias can lead to inaccurate predictions about when a task will be completed, and if somebody wants you to do something (e.g. construct a new bathroom, transit system, or tax plan), this is a problem.

The good news is that where there is a problem you didn’t know you had, there are social psychologists with a solution. Research suggests that optimism bias can be mitigated by making planning more difficult, and the simplest way to do this is to increase the number of steps you envision between starting and completing a task. For example, in a recent experiment led by Kyeong Sam Min of the University of New Orleans, people who recently got engaged were asked to describe how they would complete a wedding planning activity (e.g. music selection, guest list). Participants were asked to describe their plans in either two or five steps and then estimate when they would complete the task. Ten days after the date given the participants were contacted to determine when they actually finished the task. Min found that those who described their plans in five steps gave better estimates of their completion time.

Consistent with Hypothesis 1, planning difficulty helped to decrease the optimistic prediction bias. People in the difficult planning condition, who were asked to describe their projects in five steps, predicted, on average, that they would finish 51.5 days before the wedding, but they actually completed target activities 48.2 days before the wedding. In contrast, people in the easy planning condition, who were asked to describe their projects in two steps, predicted, on average, that they would finish 95.2 days before the wedding, but they actually finished the activities 79.7 days before the wedding.

More steps lead to better predictions because the difficulty of generating additional steps causes people to become less optimistic. If you can’t even come up with five actions that will guide you toward your goal, maybe achieving the goal is not a forgone conclusion.

There are a lot of ways this can be used in various nudges. For example, before taking out a loan people could be asked to do some difficult planning (i.e. many steps) regarding how they’ll pay it back. Doctors could encourage people to stay healthy by asking them to produce a difficult plan for how they would lose weight. Perhaps professors could even try to quell procrastination by requiring students to submit 12 step plans for essay completion. The bottom line is that next time you see a 36 step plan, don’t scoff, admire its potential accuracy.
Min, K., & Arkes, H. (2012). When Is Difficult Planning Good Planning? The Effects of Scenario-Based Planning on Optimistic Prediction Bias Journal of Applied Social Psychology DOI: 10.1111/j.1559-1816.2012.00958.x


One Response to How to Be Efficiently Pessimistic

  1. Åse says:

    I’m vindicated!


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