Just how likely are you to succeed?

And how unlikely is it that something bad happens to you, just because it happened to someone else?

Surprisingly, most people appear to think that in the future, it is more likely that good things will happen to them, and less likely that bad things would happen to them.

This is a cognitive bias known as the optimism bias.

According to researchers, this is one of the most pervasive and widely-proven biases in the world. One of the most cited-assessments of the bias from 2011 gives the following examples:

When it comes to predicting what will happen to us tomorrow, next week, or fifty years from now, we overestimate the likelihood of positive events, and underestimate the likelihood of negative events.

For example, we underrate our chances of getting divorced, being in a car accident, or suffering from cancer. We also expect to live longer than objective measures would warrant, overestimate our success in the job market, and believe that our children will be especially talented.

Research has shown that people are optimistic about their chances for both positive and negative outcomes.

One reason for this bias is that people often have an unrealistic perception on how much control they have over future events.

Nonetheless, this bias appears to conflict with other biases which humans have, especially the negativity bias which shows that we feel negative emotions and situations much more strongly than positive ones.

So how can it be possible for us to be both inclined towards avoiding risk and negativity, while also being unrealistically optimistic believing that things will be good for us?

It appears to come down to how challenging it is for humans to accurately assess risks about events in the future.

Dr Owen Sullivan in his research on the subject suggested the following potential reason:

In visualising an uncomplicated future, we rise above the myriad of possible outcomes to focus on a simplified positive endpoint. Admittedly, to reconcile the full spectrum of conceivable eventualities would be endlessly time-consuming and tortuous.

And it is as such, that the optimism bias exists as a heavily-biased heuristic to satiate our hunger for certainty – even if it is one of our own creation.

According to him, if we as humans were to do nothing but think about all of the possible negative things which could happen, it would paralyse us and prevent us from taking any action. Uncertainty is one of the fundamental fears of humans, and the optimism bias appears to help us feel a certain degree of certainty about the future, even if it not based on any evidence. But it prevents us becoming trapped by fear and allows us to continue.

Impact on innovation projects

Much like other cognitive biases like egocentric bias, naive realism and the endowment effect, the optimism bias may result in companies and innovation teams becoming unrealistically optimistic about the chance of success for their innovation once it is released.

As a result, teams may be surprised and frustrated when they release a new solution to the market, only to find out that customers are not as excited about the new solution as hoped.

It is true, innovation projects are almost impossible to plan.

But that does not mean that teams should just continue working on their solution and hope for the best by being optimistic.

Instead, what often helps is a structured innovation framework to get frequent, small feedback to validate whether an innovation project is going in the right direction. I personally use the L.I.V.E. innovation method with my clients.

This way, there is evidence and data to help reduce the risk of things not going as expected.

Did you know that scientific evidence shows your creativity decreases over time

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Creativity & Innovation expert: I help individuals and companies build their creativity and innovation capabilities, so you can develop the next breakthrough idea which customers love. Chief Editor of Ideatovalue.com and Founder / CEO of Improvides Innovation Consulting. Coach / Speaker / Author / TEDx Speaker / Voted as one of the most influential innovation bloggers.