But the optimism bias also tends to cause people to underestimate risk. That means for all its upside, we also, say, underestimate the amount of time and money a project will take or how a new pair of shoes will make us happy. In the end, too much optimism is dangerous and can get in your way.
Embracing your inner negative Nelly
But if our natural inclination is to be sunny in our thinking, it will take practice to take on board just enough negative to help offset those optimism blinders.
Using her two decades of research, Oettingen developed a tool called WOOP, which stands for wish, outcome, obstacle and plan. The tool, also available as a website and smartphone app, walks people through a series of exercises designed to help them come up with concrete strategies to achieve their short- or long-term goals, mixing positive thinking with attention to any downsides and barriers.
For example, you might want to start a company but then realise you hate to ask people for money or don’t want to work long hours. You can then either figure out a way around those obstacles, like teaming up with a sales person or sticking to predefined work hours. Or you might decide that the obstacle is too big and isn’t worth it after all — before you’ve performed poorly.
“Then at least you can put the goal aside without a bad conscience and you can say ‘no, no I’ve looked it and at the moment it does not fit into my life’,” Oettingen says.