Title: Social comparison of health risks
Authors: Hoorens, Vera
Buunk, Abraham P. #
Issue Date: Sep-1991
Conference: European Association of Experimental Social Psychology Small Group Meeting: Social Psychological Models in Health and Safety Research location:Canterbury date:September 1991
Abstract: Most people attribute lower health risks to themselves than to their peers. As it is logically impossible that the vast majority of a population will be better off than the group average (except in extremely skewed distributions), this phenomenon is called unrealistic optimism or the illusion of unique invulnerability.
According to Taylor & Brown (1988), self-serving cognitive biases such as unrealistic optimism serve an adaptive goal by enhancing one's psychosocial well-being. However, thus far the relationship between unrealistic optimism and psychosocial well-being has not been systematically studied. In addition, there is no consensus on the severity of potential consequences of the phenomenon for one's prevention- and risk behaviour, pointed out by other authors (e.g. Perloff, 1983). As both types of effects in turn carry new health-related implications, a better insight in the behavioural and affective consequences or correlates of unrealistic optimism and of its determinants is highly desirable.
In past research on the determinants of the phenomenon, three factors have received special empirical attention: the differential availability of (and attention for) information on one's own and other people's preventive- and risk behaviour, the use of prototypical comparison others in assessing one's own relative risks, and perceived controllability of risk factors. The first two hypotheses are supported by findings suggesting that unrealistic optimism does not manifest itself when people are invited to compare themselves to a good friend instead of 'others' or 'the average other'. However, as comparing oneself to a good friend implies a comparison with an individual while 'the average other' or 'the others' refers to a group, this finding can be explained by the 'person positivity bias'--the tendency of people to value individuals higher than the view they hold of the group to which these individuals belong. The third hypothesis is supported by the positive correlation which has been observed between the perceived controllability of events and unrealistic optimism related to these events. However, no data exist showing that people with a relatively strong tendency to perceive events as controllable by themselves (people with an internal locus of control) show a higher degree of unrealistic optimism than people who believe things are controlled outside themselves (people with an external locus of control).
In the present paper, an experiment is described designed to study the relationship between unrealistic optimism, psychosocial well-being and preventive behaviour and to test the explanations mentioned above. High-school students estimated their own chances of attracting a series of health problems or health-threathening experiences. In addition, they estimated the risks of the average high-school student, an arbitrary individual high-school student or their best friend. The mean difference between the estimations for oneself and for the comparison other was taken as a measure of unrealistic optimism. Finally, subjects filled out questionnaires assessing their self-esteem, locus of control, trait anxiety and health-protecting behaviour. The order of the different measurements was varied over subjects.
A significant degree of unrealistic optimism was observed, irrespective the measurement order and the nature of the comparison person. These results are in contradiction with explanations of unrealistic optimism in terms of the 'person positivity bias' and the choice of the comparison other. Similarly, they offer no support for an explanation based on the assumption that people dispose of more information on their own and their best friend's preventive behaviour than on an arbitrary person's behaviour.
Unrealistic optimism was stronger in subjects who estimated the comparison person's risks first than in subjects who started with their own risks. This unexpected pattern of results can be understood in terms of Codol's observation that people perceive others as more similar to themselves than they are to others. People with an internal locus of control showed a stronger degree of unrealistic optimism than persons with an external locus of control. In addition, unrealistic optimism was the strongest for risks rated as controllable by independent judges. These results are line with interpretations of the phenomenon in terms of perceived controllability.
Unrealistic optimism was positively correlated with the extent to which subjects showed preventive behaviour and avoided risk behaviour : students who saw their own future relatively rosily, reported more healthy behaviour than students who showed a lesser degree of optimism. This finding suggest that besides a general relative underestimation of own risks, people are to some degree sensitive to factors objectively influencing their chances of attracting health hasards. At least, this sensitivity is stronger than potentially risk-enhancing behavioral consequences of the general optimism bias. No significant correlation between unrealistic optimism and self-esteem or trait anxiety was observed. However, trait anxiety was positively correlated with one's own perceived health risks : a lesser degree of anxiety was associated with more positive prospects.
Publication status: published
KU Leuven publication type: IMa
Appears in Collections:Social and Cultural Psychology
# (joint) last author

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