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Why optimism can be dangerous during a pandemic

For those of us who insist on seeing the glass half full, even when the miserable brigade point out that it’s also half empty, COVID-19 poses particular challenges.

In regular times, our relentless optimism wins us friends and provides us with a host of benefits including higher levels of wellbeing, increased resilience and better health. Normally, the only downsides relate to minor setbacks when things don’t turn out the way we would like and the mild irritation of grumpy colleagues when we’re chirpy at work.

Now, things are very different. During a pandemic, we need to act as though it’s likely we will get COVID-19 in order to keep ourselves safe and avoid spreading the disease to others. So what is an optimist to do?

Looking on the bright side

My definition of optimism is “the belief that things will go well in the absence of sufficient evidence to support this view”.

As a fervent optimist, I have experienced the benefits (and minor pitfalls) for myself. I am more likely to assume that it will be sunny on the day I am planning a barbecue, which means that we have some amazing meals in the garden, but I have no plan B prepared in case it rains. I’m more likely to set off on long distances on my motorcycle, which means some wonderfully adventurous rides to beautiful places, but I will be in trouble if I ever break down or have a flat tire because I won’t have planned for it.

Whether we are generally optimistic or pessimistic can have a significant effect on our wellbeing. It seems logical that focusing on what is working can lead to more positive emotions and increased satisfaction with life, and this is supported by research.

A rainbow over a field against a blue sky.
Looking on the bright side has its down sides. MRacheron/Shutterstock

The dark side of optimism

In a pandemic, optimism has a dark side. In situations where danger is present, excessive optimism (sometimes called irrational or unrealistic optimism) can have severe negative consequences. What is normally a strength of optimists (risk taking) becomes a dangerous weakness.

Because we believe that things will work out well even where there is little evidence to support this perspective, we tend to minimise risks, underestimate costs and ignore warning signs. We might misjudge our vulnerability to COVID-19, believing without justification that we are less likely to catch it.

We also might be less cautious when walking into crowded spaces and less motivated to obey restrictions. Even when we catch the virus, we’re more likely to believe that it is “just a cold” and so more likely to continue going about our daily routines. By doing this we are putting ourselves and others at risk. And the consequences can be deadly.

What can we do to moderate our optimism?

Optimists need to rein themselves in a bit during this crisis. But how? A good way to check if we are being excessively optimistic is to ask ourselves: what evidence do I have to support my prediction? If there isn’t any basis for our assumption that, for example, we won’t get coronavirus by entering a closed, crowded space for a long time, we should think about changing our behaviour.

A glass on a table being filled with water.
The glass may be half full, but we still need to act like it might be half empty. Cozine/Shutterstock

Another strategy is to compare our predictions to what experts, specialists and commentators are saying. According to the theory of “optimistic explanatory style”, an optimistic response arises when a person believes that a negative event is external (caused by someone or something else), that it is unstable (not likely to persist over time), and that it is local (only relates to a particular situation). So it would be helpful for us to challenge our thinking. To what extent are the current restrictions about me versus other people? How long is the pandemic likely to be with us? To what extent is COVID-19 a local issue?

As optimists, our natural inclination is not to spend too much time on questions like this. But if we want to moderate our optimism, we must set aside time to think about these things and discuss our ideas with others.

How to govern for optimists

In ambiguous situations, optimists tend to gravitate towards the most positive interpretation of the rules. In situations where confusion reigns due to constantly changing regulations, we will come to our own conclusions. When rules come with exceptions, we will assume that these exceptions apply to us.

UK guidelines on social distancing, for example, say we should stay two metres apart unless we have a face covering “or other precautions” in place, in which case the distance is reduced to one metre. To an optimist, that means that we should stay one metre apart, not the full two. For the messaging to be most useful for optimists, it should be clear and unambiguous. “Stay two metres apart” is better for optimists than giving a range.

Two women walk down a road with
Does the two-metre rule apply to you? Your answer might depend on whether you’re an optimist. Dominic Lipinski/PA

If tight restrictions are eased, as they were over summer in many places, optimists start believing the risk has subsided and the crisis will soon be over. But as we have seen subsequently, that initial optimism has led a second wave, with many local regions and entire countries heading back into various forms of lockdown. Rather than continually changing the guidelines, sending mixed messages about the level of risk and imposing different rules in different regions, governments should put out explicit and unambiguous regulations that are consistently applied if they want to influence the behaviour of optimists.

Optimal optimism

For optimists, the question now is how we can benefit from our tendency towards seeing the upside of life while minimising any risk to ourselves or others. It is important to retain our generalised optimism that we will be able to overcome this challenging time and remain positive as we do so.

At the same time, we should intentionally seek other perspectives and talk to others about our automatic responses to the pandemic. We must dedicate time to weighing up the risks and consequences of our behaviour without being drawn into extended rumination or falling into pessimism.

If we can do this, I am cautiously optimistic that we can protect ourselves and others while bringing positivity and hope to our societies.

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