Journal of Behavioral Medicine

, Volume 5, Issue 4, pp 441–460 | Cite as

Unrealistic optimism about susceptibility to health problems

  • Neil D. Weinstein


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.

Key words

prevention susceptibility optimistic biases fear preventive health behavior health beliefs 


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. Baric, L. (1969). Recognition of the “at-risk” role.Int. J. Health Educ. 12: 24–34.Google Scholar
  2. Becker, M. H., Kaback, M. M., Rosenstock, I. M., and Ruth, M. V. (1975). Some influences on participation in a genetic screening program.J. Commun. Health 1: 3–14.Google Scholar
  3. Cummings, K. M., Jette, A. M., Brock, B. M., and Haefner, D. P. (1979). Psychosocial determinants of immunization behavior in a swine influenza campaign.Med. Care 17: 639–649.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  4. Goethals, G. R., and Darley, J. M. (1977). Social comparison theory: An attributional approach. In Suls, J. M., and Miller, R. L. (eds.),Social Comparison Processes, Hemisphere, Washington, D.C.Google Scholar
  5. Harris, D. M., and Guten, S. (1979). Health protective behavior: An exploratory study.J. Health Soc. Behav. 20: 17–29.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  6. Higbee, K. L. (1969). Fifteen years of fear arousal: Research on threat appeals 1953–1968.Psychol. Bull. 72: 426–444.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  7. Janis, I. L. (1967). Effects of fear arousal on attitude change: Recent developments in theory and experimental research. In Berkowitz, L. (ed.),Adv. Exp. Soc. Psychol., Vol. 3, Academic Press, New York.Google Scholar
  8. Jones, E. E., and Nisbett, R. E. (1971). The actor and the observer: Divergent perceptions of the causes of behavior. In Jones, E. E., Kanouse, D., Kelley, H. H., Nisbett, R. E., Valins, S., and Weiner, B. (eds.).Attribution: Perceiving the Causes of Behavior, General Learning Press, Morristown, N.J.Google Scholar
  9. Kahneman, D., and Tversky, A. (1972). Subjective probability: A judgment of representativeness.Cog. Psychol. 3: 430–454.Google Scholar
  10. Kasl, S. V. (1975). Social psychological characteristics associated with behaviors that reduce cardiovascular risk. In Enelow, A. J., and Henderson, J. (eds.),Applying Behavioral Science to Cardiovascular Risk, American Heart Association, Dallas, Tex.Google Scholar
  11. Kirscht, J. P., Haefner, D. P., Kegeles, S. S., and Rosenstock, I. M. (1966). A national study of health beliefs.J. Health Hum. Behav. 7: 248–254.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  12. Larwood, L. (1978). Swine flu: A field study of self-serving biases.J. Appl. Soc. Psychol. 8: 283–289.Google Scholar
  13. Lazarus, R. S. (1966).Psychological Stress and the Coping Process, McGraw-Hill, New York.Google Scholar
  14. Leventhal, H. (1970). Findings and theory in the study of fear communications. In Berkowitz, L. (ed.),Adv. Exp. Soc. Psychol., Vol. 6, Academic Press, New York.Google Scholar
  15. Leventhal, H. (1973). Changing attitudes and habits to reduce risk factors in chronic disease.Am. J. Cardiol. 31: 571–580.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  16. Lichtenstein, S., Slovic, P., Fischhoff, B., Layman, M., and Combs, B. (1978). Judged frequency of lethal events.J. Exp. Psychol. Hum. Learn. Mem. 4: 551–578.Google Scholar
  17. Miller, D. T., and Ross, M. (1975). Self-serving biases in the attribution of causality: Fact or fiction?Psychol. Bull. 82: 213–225.Google Scholar
  18. Myers, D. G., and Ridl, J. (1979). Can we all be better than average?Psychol. Today 89: 95–98.Google Scholar
  19. Robertson, L. S. (1977). Car crashes: Perceived vulnerability and willingness to pay for crash protection.J. Commun. Health 3: 136–141.Google Scholar
  20. Rogers, R. W., and Mewborn, C. R. (1976). Fear appeals and attitude change: Effects of a threat's noxiousness, probability of occurrence, and the efficacy of coping responses.J. Personal. Soc. Psychol. 34: 54–61.Google Scholar
  21. Rosenstock, I. M. (1974). The Health Belief Model: Origins and correlates.Health Educ. Monogr. 2: 336–353.Google Scholar
  22. Ross, L., Green, D., and House, P. (1977). The “false consensus effect”: An egocentric bias in social perception and attribution processes.J. Exp. Soc. Psychol. 13: 279–301.Google Scholar
  23. Sevenson, O. (1981). Are we all less risky and more skillful than our fellow drivers?Acta Psychol. 47: 143–148.Google Scholar
  24. Weary, G. W. (1978. Self-serving biases in the attribution process: A reexamination of the fact or fiction question.J. Personal. Soc. Psychol. 36: 56–71.Google Scholar
  25. Weinstein, N. D. (1980). Unrealistic optimism about future life events.J. Personal. Soc. Psychol. 39: 806–820.Google Scholar
  26. Weinstein, N. D., and Lachendro, E. (1982). Egocentrism as a source of unrealistic optimism.Personal Soc. Psychol. Bull. 8: 195–200.Google Scholar
  27. Zuckerman, M. (1979). Attribution of success and failure revisited or: The motivational bias is alive and well in attribution theory.J. Personal. 47: 245–287.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Plenum Publishing Corporation 1982

Authors and Affiliations

  • Neil D. Weinstein
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Human Ecology, Cook CollegeRutgers-The State University of New JerseyNew Brunswick

Personalised recommendations