Social Cognition Network Meeting edition:4 location:Paris date:11-14 September 2002
In many studies on comparative optimism, participants estimate the likelihood that various events will happen to themselves and to the average other. Comparative optimism occurs if they believe that they are more, resp. less likely to experience desirable, resp. undesirable events than the average other. This research has been criticized for possibly yielding artefactual comparative optimism effects. First, participants are often encouraged to answer quickly and not to ponder too long on the task. It is not clear, therefore, to which degree comparative optimism occurs ‘in real life’ in which people may spontaneously tend to think about their own and other people’s risk factors much more carefully. Second, participants may feel unable to estimate ‘the average other’s’ likelihoods are they may simply not be interested in doing so. They may use the midpoint of the scale (‘50%’) to indicate this ignorance or this lack of interest.
To test these artefactual explanations, students estimated both their own and the average other’s likelihood to experience various events while their response times were unobtrusively recorded. In Study 1, the instructions encouraged participants to answer either as quickly or as accurately as possible. In Study 2, participants did the estimation task with or without cognitive load. Neither cognitive load (Study 2) nor a differential stress on speed or accuracy (Study 1) affected comparative optimism. Estimating the average peer’s likelihoods did not go faster (and in Study 1 even more slowly) than estimating one’s own likelihoods. In addition, neither the tendency to give estimates for the average other around 50% nor the average response time for estimating the average other’s likelihoods were correlated with comparative optimism. The results contradict the artefactual explanations of comparative optimism and show that the phenomenon is not restricted to situations in which risk-relevant information is being considered very superficially.