The Costs and Benefits of Positive Illusions

Makridakis, Spyros ; Moleskis, Andreas (2015-11)

Working Paper

Positive illusions are associated with unrealistic optimism about the future and an inflated assessment of one's abilities. They are prevalent in normal life and are considered essential for maintaining a healthy mental state, although, there are disagreements to the extent to which people demonstrate these positive illusions and whether they are beneficial or not. But whatever the situation, it is hard to dismiss their existence and their positive and/or negative influence on human behavior and decision making in general. Prominent among illusions is that of control that according to Wikipedia, is “the tendency for people to overestimate their ability to control events”. This chapter describes positive illusions, talks about their potential benefits but also quantifies their costs in five specific fields (gambling, stock and other markets, new firms and startups, preventive medicine and wars). It is organized into three parts. First the psychological reasons giving rise to positive illusions are described and their likely harm and benefits are stated. Second, their negative consequences are presented and their costs are quantified in five areas seriously affected with emphasis to those related to the illusion of control that seems to dominate those of unrealistic optimism. The costs involved are huge and serious efforts must be undertaken to understand their enormity and steps taken to avoid them in the future. Finally, there is a concluding section where the challenges related to positive illusions are noted and directions for future research are presented.

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