Unrealistic optimism about susceptibility to health problems: Conclusions from a community-wide sample

Abstract

A mailed questionnaire was used to obtain comparative risk judgments for 32 different hazards from a random sample of 296 individuals living in central New Jersey. The results demonstrate that an optimistic bias about susceptibility to harm-a tendency to claim that one is less at risk than one's peers—is not limited to any particular age, sex, educational, or occupational group. It was found that an optimistic bias is often introduced when people extrapolate from their past experience to estimate their future vulnerability. Thus, the hazards most likely to elicit unrealistic optimism are those associated with the belief (often incorrect) that if the problem has not yet appeared, it is unlikely to occur in the future. Optimistic biases also increase with the perceived preventability of a hazard and decrease with perceived frequency and personal experience. Other data presented illustrate the inconsistent relationships between personal risk judgments and objective risk factors.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.

References

  1. Ajzen, I., and Fishbein, M. (1980).Understanding Attitudes and Predicting Behavior, Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.

    Google Scholar 

  2. Ausubel, D. P. (1954).Theory and Problems of Adolescent Development, Grune & Stratton, New York.

    Google Scholar 

  3. Becker, M. H., Haefner, D. P., Kasl, S. V., Kirscht, J. P., Maiman, L. A., and Rosenstock, I. M. (1977). Selected psychosocial models and correlates of individual health-related behaviors.Med. Care 15 (Suppl): 27–46.

    Google Scholar 

  4. Doob, L. (1971).The Patterning of Time, Yale University Press, New Haven, Conn.

    Google Scholar 

  5. Drake, R. A. (1984). Lateral asymmetry of personal optimism.J. Res. Personal. 18: 497–507.

    Google Scholar 

  6. Edwards, W. (1954). The theory of decision making.Psychol. Bull. 51: 380–417.

    Google Scholar 

  7. Elkind, D. (1967). Egocentrism in adolescence.Child Dev. 38: 1025–1034.

    Google Scholar 

  8. Enright, R. D., and Lapsley, D. K. (1979). Adolescent egocentrism in early and late adolescence.Adolescence 14: 687–695.

    Google Scholar 

  9. Fishbein, M., and Ajzen, I. (1975).Belief, Attitude, Intention and Behavior: An Introduction to Theory and Research, Addison-Wesley, Reading, Mass.

    Google Scholar 

  10. Frey, J. H. (1983).Survey Research by Telephone, Sage, Beverly Hills, Calif.

    Google Scholar 

  11. Hakmiller, K. L. (1966). Threat as a determinant of downward comparison.J. Exp. Soc. Psychol. 1: 32–39

    Google Scholar 

  12. Hoch, S. J. (1985). Counterfactual reasoning and accuracy in predicting personal eventsJ. Exp. Psychol. Learning. Memory Cognit. 11(4): 719–731.

    Google Scholar 

  13. Hultsch, D. F., and Bortner, R. W. (1974). Personal time perspective in adulthood: A time-sequential study.Dev. Psychol. 10(6): 835–837.

    Google Scholar 

  14. Janz, N. K., and Becker, M. H. (1984). The Health Belief Model: A decade later.Health Educ. Q. 11(1): 1–47.

    Google Scholar 

  15. Jones, E. E., Farina, A., Hastorf, A. H., Markus, H., Millner, D. T., and Scott, R. A. (1984).Social Stigma: The Psychology of Marked Relationships, W. H. Freeman, New York.

    Google Scholar 

  16. Kirscht, J. P., Haefner, D. P., Kegeles, F. S., and Rosenstock, I. M. (1966). A national study of health beliefs.J. Health Hum. Behav. 7: 248–254.

    Google Scholar 

  17. Knapper, C. K., Cropley, A. J., and Moore, R. J. (1976). Attitudinal factors in the non-use of seat belts.Accident Anal. Prevent. 8: 241–246.

    Google Scholar 

  18. Larwood, L. (1978). Swine flu: A field study of self-serving biases.J. Appl. Soc. Psychol. 8(3): 283–289.

    Google Scholar 

  19. McCandless, B. R. (1970).Adolescents: Behavior and Development, Dryden, Hindsdale, Ill.

    Google Scholar 

  20. National Opinion Research Center (1983).General Social Survey, 1982–1983, Author, Chicago.

    Google Scholar 

  21. Newport, E. M. (1981). National Safety Belt Study. Final report of National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Contact DTNH22 81 C 05224 (Sept. 4).

  22. Perloff, L. S., and Fetzer, B. K. (1986). Self-other judgments and perceived vulnerability to victimization.J. Personal. Soc. Psychol. 50(3): 502–511.

    Google Scholar 

  23. Rogers, R. W. (1975). A protection motivation theory of fear appeals and attitude change.J. Psychol. 91: 93–114.

    Google Scholar 

  24. Rogers, R. W. (1983). Cognitive and physiological processes in fear appeals and attitude change: A revised theory of protection motivation. In Cacioppo, J. T., and Petty, R. E. (eds.),Social Psychophysiology, Guilford Press, New York, pp. 153–176.

    Google Scholar 

  25. Rogers, R. W., and Mewborn, C. R. (1976). Fear appeals and attitude change: Effects of threat's noxiousness, probability of occurrence, and the efficacy of coping responses.J. Personal. Soc. Psychol. 34: 54–61.

    Google Scholar 

  26. Rosenstock, I. M. (1974). The health belief model: Origins and correlates.Health Educ. Monogr. 2(4): 336–353.

    Google Scholar 

  27. Ross, M., and Sicoly, F. (1979). Egocentric biases in availability and attribution.J. Personal. Soc. Psychol. 37: 322–337.

    Google Scholar 

  28. Sutton, S. R. (1982). Fear arousing communications: A critical examination of theory and research. In Eiser, J. R. (ed.),Social Psychology and Behavioral Medicine, Wiley, New York, pp. 303–338.

    Google Scholar 

  29. Svenson, O. (1984). Time perception and long-term risks.Can. J. Operat. Res. Inform. Process. 22(2): 196–214.

    Google Scholar 

  30. Svenson, O., Fischhoff, B., and MacGregor, D. (1985). Perceived driving safety and seatbelt usage.Accident Anal. Prevent. 17(2) 119–133.

    Google Scholar 

  31. Tyler, T., and Cook, F. L. (1984). The mass media and judgments of risk: Distinguishing impact on personal and societal level judgments.J. Personal. Soc. Psychol. 47(4): 693–708.

    Google Scholar 

  32. Tversky, A., and Kahneman, D. (1974). Judgment under uncertainty: Heuristics and biases.Science 185: 1124–1131.

    Google Scholar 

  33. Watts, W., and Free, L. A. (1978).State of the Nation III, D. C. Heath, Lexington, Mass.

    Google Scholar 

  34. Weinstein, N. D. (1980). Unrealistic optimism about future life events.J. Personal. Soc. Psychol. 39: 806–820.

    Google Scholar 

  35. Weinstein, N. D. (1982). Unrealistic optimism about susceptibility to health problems.J. Behav. Med. 5: 441–460.

    Google Scholar 

  36. Weinstein, N. D. (1983). Reducing unrealistic optimism about illness susceptibility.Health Psychol. 2: 11–20.

    Google Scholar 

  37. Weinstein, N. D. (1984) Why it won't happen to me: Perceptions of risk factors and illness susceptibility.Health Psychol. 3: 431–457.

    Google Scholar 

  38. Weinstein, N. D., and Lachendro, E. (1982). Egocentrism as a source of unrealistic optimism.Personal. Soc. Psychol. Bull. 8: 195–200.

    Google Scholar 

  39. Weinstein, N. D., Grubb, P. D., and Vautier, J. S. (1986). Increasing automobile seat belt use: An intervention emphasizing risk susceptibility.J. Appl. Psychol. 71(2): 285–290.

    Google Scholar 

  40. Wills, T. A. (1981). Downward comparison principles in social psychology.Psychol. Bull. 90: 245–271.

    Google Scholar 

  41. Wood, J. V., Taylor, S. E., and Lichtman, R. R. (1985). Social comparison in adjustment to breast cancer.J. Personal. Soc. Psychol. 49(5): 1169–1183.

    Google Scholar 

  42. Zakay, D. (1983). The relationship between the probability assessor and the outcomes of an event as a determiner of subjective probability.Acta Psychol. 53: 271–280.

    Google Scholar 

  43. Zakay, D. (1984). The influence of perceived event's controllability on its subjective occurrence probability.Psychol. Rec. 34: 233–240.

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Neil D. Weinstein.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Weinstein, N.D. Unrealistic optimism about susceptibility to health problems: Conclusions from a community-wide sample. J Behav Med 10, 481–500 (1987). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00846146

Download citation

Key words

  • risk perception
  • susceptibility
  • optimism
  • risk factors