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Is Optimism Overrated?

Despite widespread beliefs to the contrary, new research shows that looking on the bright side doesn’t improve performance.

Is Optimism Overrated?
[Photo: Flickr user Moyan Brenn]

We’re often told that happy people are successful, but the link between optimism and performance is not as clear as the popular narrative implies. Indeed, it’s basically nonexistent.

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That’s the conclusion of a new paper from Elizabeth Tenney, an assistant professor of management at the University of Utah, and her colleagues. In a series of experiments, the researchers primed participants to feel optimistic about their abilities, then measured their performance on various tasks, such as judging ages from photographs or doing Where’s Waldo?-type searches. They also asked research subjects how they thought optimism would affect performance.

Persistence and Outcomes

The discovery? People “really think optimism is very powerful in terms of improving performance,” says Tenney. But people who believe that “are in essence making a mistake.” Optimism did not improve outcomes on the tests. People primed to be optimistic persisted at tasks longer, but “optimism helping their persistence didn’t translate into much better performance,” she says. In other words, optimists look for Waldo longer, but have no more success in finding him.

This is somewhat of a surprising conclusion, given the popular belief that “if you believe it you can achieve it.” Indeed, looking around, “the successful people we know, they tend to be optimistic. They tend to be confident,” says Tenney. The problem is that in life, correlation is not causation. “It’s hard as observers to tell if optimism is driving this person’s success, or was there some third variable,” she says. Someone might be confident about closing sales because she’s actually very good at it. She’s thought through needs and knows how to answer client concerns. She’s optimistic about the outcome, but the outcome isn’t due to optimism. It’s due to this saleswoman’s skills.

The Downside Of The Bright Side

Of course, just because optimism doesn’t improve performance doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing. After all, it feels good to have a sunny disposition. Other people like to be around the smiley sort. So is there a downside?

Unfortunately, yes. “Optimism and accuracy aren’t always the same thing,” says Tenney, and accuracy has some major upsides too. “If you think about someone making a hard decision, that person doesn’t want optimism. He wants accurate input.” Given that optimism doesn’t improve performance, if you’re deciding whether to take a giant leap, believing you can do it is not as important as knowing the distance and your own jumping capabilities.

There’s a lesson here for managers: “As a manager, a person needs to ask herself, What does this situation call for?” If you need to rally employees to persist on a course that’s already been decided, then optimism won’t hurt. But if you’re trying to figure out where to allocate resources, you want the cold, hard truth.

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“I don’t want to say that optimism is never useful,” says Tenney. On the other hand, “It doesn’t seem to be as useful as we think.”

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About the author

Laura Vanderkam is the author of several time management and productivity books, including I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time (Portfolio, June 9, 2015), What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast (Portfolio, 2013), and 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think (Portfolio, 2010). She blogs at www.lauravanderkam.com.

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