Friday, September 9, 2011

Unrealistic optimism about problem drinking is dangerous.

An important part of everyone’s self-concept is a sense of how we compare to others in our behaviors.  A common observation is that many people are overly optimistic in their judgments about themselves relative to others.  For example, on average, people think they are more likely to be successful in business than others, or to be less likely to suffer from serious illnesses than others.  Not everyone can be more successful in business than others, of course, so somebody in that sample must be being too optimistic.

What is the effect of this optimism on behavior?

It is likely that being overly optimistic can have many different effects on behavior depending on the kind of behavior.  In this post, I want to focus on the influence of optimism on drinking.  Amanda Dillard, Amanda Midboe, and William Klein reported an interesting study in the November, 2009 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin in which they followed a group of college students for one and a half years.

Students were asked about whether they thought they were more or less likely to be at risk for drinking problems than their peers.  They were also asked about a number of problem drinking behaviors they might have experienced during that semester (including getting sick, blacking out, and missing class.  They were also asked about the amount they typically drank.  In three follow-up questionnaires given every six months, they were asked additional questions about their drinking behavior.

The first question is whether there were people who were unrealistically optimistic?  The answer to that question was clearly yes.  There was a group of people who felt that they were at low risk for drinking problems, yet those people did drink more than their peers.  These people were unrealistically optimistic.  Not everyone was unrealistically optimistic.  There was another group of realists who either did not drink much and correctly felt that they were at low risk for drinking problems or drank substantially but believed they were at risk for drinking problems.

The study then compared the realists to the unrealistic optimists.  The unrealistic optimists were more likely to experience negative events as a result of drinking than the realists in all of the followup periods. Six months after their initial assessment, the unrealistic optimists experienced 20% more negative episodes than the realists, and by the following year, they were experiencing 54% more negative episodes.

There are many reasons why the unrealistic optimists experience so many more alcohol problems than their peers who are realistic about their drinking.  For example, the unrealistic optimists may pay less attention to the consequences of their drinking than the realists in order to maintain their self-concept that they are not problem drinkers.  In addition, the unrealistic optimists may not be as good as the realists at recognizing the potential dangers of drinking.

So, if unrealistic optimism can lead to bad behaviors and bad consequences, why are some people unrealistically optimistic?  One reason is that this optimism may make people feel better in the short-run.  Those people who are unrealistically optimistic are not likely to be worried that their drinking behavior poses a long-term problem, and so they will experience little anxiety about their drinking.  People who are realistic about drinking may have more anxiety about drinking.

In the end, though, at least for behaviors that can have negative consequences like smoking, risky sex, or excessive drinking, it is probably best to be realistic about the dangers of these behaviors.