, Volume 5, Issue 4, pp 441-460

Unrealistic optimism about susceptibility to health problems

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In this study, 100 college students compared their own chances of experiencing 45 different health- and life-threatening problems with the chances of their peers. They showed a significant optimistic bias for 34 of these hazards, consistently considering their own chances to be below average. Attempts to account for the amount of bias evoked by different hazards identified perceived controllability, lack of previous experience, and the belief that the problem appears during childhood as factors that tend to increase unrealistic optimism. The investigation also examined the importance of beliefs and emotions as determinants of self-reported interest in adopting precautions to reduce one's risk. It found that: (a) beliefs about risk likelihood, beliefs about risk severity, and worry about the risk all made independent contributions to interest in risk reduction; (b) unrealistic optimism undermined interest in risk reduction indirectly by decreasing worry; and (c) beliefs about risk likelihood and severity were not sufficient to explain the amount of worry expressed about different hazards.

The author is indebted to Elizabeth Broyles for her valuable assistance in conducting this research and to Carol Weinstein and David Wilder for helpful suggestions during the preparation of this report. The investigation was supported by the Charles and Johanna Busch Bequest to Rutgers University for biomedical research.