“This time will be different.”

Optimism is a powerful force. We tell ourselves we’ll study more, work harder, drink less, spend less, or eat less. We make resolutions at New Year’s and promise to change. The prospect of changing and becoming better is a great feeling. The future holds endless possibilities and gives us a chance to correct or make up for past mistakes. It also allows us to start fresh with a new outlook. However, as we all know, that feeling is fleeting. From the moment you optimistically think, or worse, plan, your optimism begins to diminish. Psychologists Erik Helzer and Tom Gilovich of Cornell University have delved deep into this topic, giving perspective on why we tend to be overconfident in the future.

“Where there’s a will there’s a way.”

And that will is much more powerful in the future. Helzer and Gilovich find that we’re essentially our own Magic 8-Ball, but we always land on “outlook good”. Even in thinking of others’ futures, we tend to be overly optimistic. In one case, students in a psychology class were asked to predict a peer’s and their future performances on an exam. When predicting their peers’ exams, each were given information on their particular peer’s performance on a previous exam. While peer-predictions were less optimistic, and therefore accurate in predicting test scores than self-predictions, they were nonetheless more optimistic when compared to their peer’s actual performance. So it can be determined that we’re not only optimistic about our futures, but the future in general.

Their research has found that our optimism and overconfidence in not only our future, but other people’s futures, is influenced more by “exertion of will” than by previous attempts and the consequent outcomes. People tend to blame past failures on external causes while heavily attributing success to their own efforts. That sort of thing can hit close to home for many.

I, for one, used to blame my weight problems on family “fattening me up” and lack of healthy eating options. “Shifting the blame,” in other words, is what we tend to do when considering the past. And when we’re not willing to consider our own past mistakes, it makes it hard to learn from them, and change them into future successes.

The real question to ask ourselves is: What can I do differently? Helzer and Gilovich found we perceived our willpower to be stronger in the future than in the past. However, no amount of exertion can change the past and simple willpower cannot help us overcome all obstacles. It’s clear we have to ground ourselves in reality and not get caught up in any sort of “planning fallacy” where our optimism causes us to greatly underestimate the time it may take to complete a task. As students, this is something we know all too well. Leaving a paper to the last minute while optimistically thinking: “Don’t worry, it’ll get done on time.”

You can read Helzer and Gilovich’s full study, Whatever is Willed Will Be: A Temporal Asymmetry in Attributions to Will, in PDF form on Helzer’s personal website.

Be sure to leave us a comment giving your opinions on overconfidence in the future.

Image Source: Randy Faris