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The burning building

BMJ 2020; 368 doi: (Published 19 March 2020) Cite this as: BMJ 2020;368:m1101

Rapid Response:

Unrealistic Optimism is fuelling The burning building

Dear Editor,

Thank you for an insightful piece of writing.

What we are seeing at the moment, people ignoring government advice on social distancing and going about their normal day as if all is well, is the result of what is known in the behavioural science literature as ‘Unrealistic Optimism’ (first identified by a US psychologist, Neil Weinstein in the 1980), Unrealistic Optimism or Optimistic Bias is the observation that people are hard- wired to irrationally believe that negative events (ranging from catching a cold, to failing an exam to getting divorced, to falling off your bike) are more likely to happen to the ‘average other person’ than themselves. The phenomenon has been replicated in various populations and with various stimuli.

Experiments have taken place to see how we can correct this irrational thinking in people. We cannot. There is no good evidence that Unrealistic Optimism can be reduced; giving information to people to show that their belief is irrational does not work, nor does giving them information that they may be ‘somewhat wrong’ (although the latter may more effective in providing a slight shift; Jefferson et al., (2017)).

Governments are not going to get people who are in the grips of UO about COVID-19, thinking it will not happen to them, to practice social distancing / isolation, unless governments enforce it. UO is one that we cannot beat simply by asking people to be rational and Government will need to take forceful action, if they wish to curb deaths from COVID-19.

Dr. Koula Asimakopoulou
Chartered Health Psychologist
Chartered Scientist

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

Jefferson A, Bortolotti L, Kuzmanovic B. What is unrealistic optimism?. Conscious Cogn. 2017;50:3–11. doi:10.1016/j.concog.2016.10.005

Competing interests: No competing interests

21 March 2020
K Asimakopoulou
Health Psychologist
King's College London
King's College London