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Unrealistic Optimism Gender and Culture

Paper type: Essay
Pages: 11 (2584 words)
Categories: Culture, Gender, Society
Downloads: 23
Views: 8

Several studies have been conducted to determine the influence that unrealistic optimism has over gender differences and culture. Unrealistic optimism is defined as the belief that positive (negative) events are more (less) likely to happen to one ’s self-versus others. Researchers have reported that both men and women from across cultures tend to be influenced by this bias. Nevertheless, they’ve found that Western cultures (such as Americans or Canadians) are identified by being independent and individualist, whereas Eastern cultures (such as Japanese) tend to focus on interdependence and collectivism.

Given this basic traits, experimenters have discovered that Canadians tend to believe that positive events are more likely to happen to them, whereas Japanese tend to believe that they are more likely to experience negative events. In the other hand, both men and women have revealed to be unrealistically optimistic. However, men have reported higher levels of unrealistic bias compared to women around the world.


Unrealistic optimism or optimistic bias is defined as the tendency for people to believe that they are more likely to experience positive events and less likely to experience negative events compared to others. (Weinsten, 1980). Taylor and Brown stated that almost 121 studies have demonstrated this phenomenon. Various findings have confirmed that American college students think that they were more likely than others to experience positive events such as getting a good job or forming a family. In opposition, most people think that they are less likely than others of experiencing negative events such as having a drinking problem or being fired from a job. The purpose of this essay is to determine the extent to which cultural and gender differences are influenced by unrealistic optimism.

Unrealistic Optimism

Unrealistic optimism could cause a negative effect over an individual’s life as it can distort their perception about reality. However, unrealistic optimism has also shown favorable effects over and individual’s well-being. This bias is significantly important because it can impact people’s intentions to engage in preventive behaviors. In addition, it can also affect the way in which people process information to update their beliefs. Furthermore, it has been demonstrated that optimistic bias appears to be motivated by threat. In other words, if a negative future event is perceived to be particularly serious, it’s more likely that the person will feel invulnerable toward that particular event.

Western vs. Eastern Cultures

The tendency of believing that one has better-than-average attributes has been researched and discussed lately. Researchers have found that people from Western cultures tend to be more unrealistically optimistic than people from Eastern cultures when comparing their chances of experiencing negative events to the average’s person. Markys and Kitayama stated that this bias influences every culture in a different way because they emphasize to tasks relevant to everyday life in different forms; independence and interdependence. Additionally, they stated that the cultures that have developed an independent construal of self are characterized by having an autonomous sense of self that’s different from others and the environment, whereas cultures that have fostered an interdependent construal of self are mutually reliant on each other and don’t attribute their individuality and uniqueness separately from the social world.

Study #1 – Cultural differences in unrealistic optimism and pessimism For this particular study participants form Japan and the United States responded to questions about negative health events that varied in event frequency and severity. The overall purpose of this study was to examine cultural differences in unrealistic optimism and pessimism through the direct versus the indirect method. The direct method involved a question in which participants compared themselves to the average group (e.g., “How likely are you to have a heart attack, relative to the average student of your age/sex?”). In the other hand, the indirect method involved a single question in which participants made absolute separate ratings for themselves (e.g., “How likely are you to have a heart attack?”).

For the indirect method, the researchers predicted that participants across cultures would present different patterns. For instance, they expected that Japanese participants would report equal or higher risk estimates than for the average student for most events. In the other hand, they predicted that U.S participants would present higher risk estimates for themselves than for the average student for most events. In contrast, for the direct method investigators predicted that participants across cultures would report similar patterns of unrealistic optimism since cognitive biases such as egocentrism on direct comparisons will have a significant influence over respondents. After 127 students from the University of Iowa (United States) and 123 students from Kansai University (Japan) were tested through both the direct and the indirect methods, researchers acknowledged that in order to determine whether there are cross-cultural differences in unrealistic optimism they needed to take in consideration on whether direct or indirect comparisons were made.

Considering the direct method, there was evidence that both Japanese and U.S. participants displayed high levels of unrealistic optimism about avoiding infrequent/negative events but, unrealistically pessimistic about avoiding frequent/negative events. However when measuring unrealistic optimism or pessimism through the indirect method the Japanese participants reported to have a tendency towards being less unrealistically optimistic than the U.S. participants. Contrarily, U.S participants showed that they tend to be more optimistic about themselves than for the average student for the majority of the events. Study#2 – Does the West feel more vulnerable than the East?. At the same time, Steven J. Heine and Damn R. Lehman from the University of British Columbia compared the levels of unrealistic optimism between Canadians and Japanese through two different studies.

The first study examined levels of unrealistic optimism exhibited by a sample typical of an independent construal of self (Canadians) and a sample typical of an interdependent construal of self (Japanese). Three different hypotheses were stated by the researchers. The first hypothesis anticipated that Canadians would show significantly more unrealistic optimism than Japanese; the second hypothesis drawn expected that constructs that have been shown to sustain the optimism bias, and availability of stereotypes, would be more pronounced in Canadians than in Japanese. And the last hypothesis predicted that Japanese’s optimism judgments will be less strongly related to threat whereas, Canadians’ unrealistic optimism would increase with perceived threat. For this particular study a total of 510 students who were taking different introductory psychology courses participated. Respondents were evenly separated between each of the Japanese and the Canadian samples.

Moreover, in order to obtain membership in the westernized Canadian sample, respondents had to meet each of the following criteria: (a) the respondent had to be born in either Canada or the United States; (b) both of the respondent’s parents had to be born in Canada, the United States, or in a European country; (c) the respondent had to declare his or her ethnic descent to be that of a European culture; and (d) to keep the age range of the Canadian sample comparable to that of the Japanese sample, the respondent had to be between the ages of 18 and 25. All participants completed a questionnaire packet that included 15 future life events. Unrealistic optimism was measured for both negative and positive events through two methods: within-groups measure and between-groups measure.

In the within-groups measure, participants had to respond questions about the chances they thought they had about experiencing a particular future event compared to other university students. In the other hand, through the between-groups measure the experimenters measured unrealistic optimism between groups. Participants received two different versions of the questionnaire. In the first version, beneath each future life event respondents were asked to estimate the absolute percentage chance that this event would happen to them. Contrarily, in the second version of the questionnaire, beneath each future life event, participants had to estimate the absolute percentage chance that a future event would happen to another same-sex student from their university. The assumptions made by Heine and Lehman about Study 1 were strongly supported since Japanese showed less unrealistic optimism than Canadians in all instances, regardless the methodology used. Surprisingly, experimenters found an interesting pattern among participants’ estimates for themselves and others.

Their findings suggested that Canadians tend to believe that positive events are more likely to occur to themselves in comparison to Japanese that reported to believe that positive events are less likely to happen to them than to others. Conversely, compared to Japanese, Canadians reported that the negative events were non significantly less likely to happen to themselves and significantly more likely to happen to others. Similarly, the main purpose for Study 2 was to examine only future life events. Researchers wanted to determine if Japanese would self-enhance more in cases in which their interdependence is threatened. Their findings were done through two subsets of future life events that we believed would be particularly threatening to people with independent and interdependent construals of self, respectively. Furthermore, Heine and Lehman anticipated that independent events would be perceived as more threatening than interdependent events for Canadians whereas interdependent events would be perceived more threatening than independent events for Japanese.

215 introductory psychology students were taken in consideration for Study 2, including Japanese and Canadian students divided evenly within samples. All respondents completed a questionnaire which contained 10 questions about negative independent future events and 10 questions about interdependent future life events. These events were selected based on reasoning that independent events will threaten the individual; whereas interdependent events will threaten the individual’s relations with close others such as co-workers, friends or family members. The researchers’ findings revealed that comparing across cultures, Japanese perceived interdependent events to be more threatening than Canadians. Control and stereotype ratings were also examined in terms in how these independent and interdependent events would be rated. With respect to control, Canadians found that both independent and especially, independent events are more controllable. However, Japanese reported that interdependent events are more controllable than independent events.

Taken together both the controllability and severity findings, ratings suggest that negative future events were perceived differently by both cultures. As a result, Canadians and Japanese showed unrealistic optimism for both independent and interdependent events. In brief, Canadians were more unrealistically optimistic than Japanese for both independent and, especially, interdependent events whereas Japanese actually showed significant unrealistic pessimism for both types of events. Similarly, recent findings have shown several differences in the way in which genders (feminine and masculine) are influenced by unrealistic optimism. Most predictions suggest that men would show greater levels of unrealistic optimism than women. In fact, as women have a more interdependent self-construal of the self and men possess a more independent construal of the self, unrealistic optimism should be stronger and more resistant for men than for women. Furthermore, gender research has shown that men and women have different expectations of marital quality; specifically different definitions of what constitutes a happy marriage

Study #3 – Gender differences in unrealistic optimism

Two different studies held by Ying-Ching Lin and Priya Raghubir examined gender differences in optimistic bias, and their beliefs about marriage using a Taiwanese population. Study 1 tested the strength of the optimistic bias for men compared to women with respect to their expectations for a happy marriage or divorce. They hypothesised men to report higher levels of unrealistic optimism than women. In the other hand, Study 2 examined the bias’s resilience among men and women, and expected men’s beliefs to be less likely to be influenced by base rates compared to women. 309 students from a Taiwanese university were part of the study in which they had to respond to different questions regarding a target person (self, same-sex best friend, average undergraduate, and average person) and their likelihood of getting divorced or having a happy marriage. Half of the participants answered questions regarding the likelihood of having a happy marriage and the other half answered questions regarding the likelihood of getting divorced. Finally, they were asked to estimate the likelihood of an event occurring in the future from 0% to 100% for each of the four target persons.

The results of this study suggested that Taiwanese men and Taiwanese women are unrealistically optimistic with respect to their relationships, and that men think that positive events, such as a happy marriage, are more likely to happen to them compared to an average person than women do. Similarly, they believe that negative events, such as divorce, are less likely to happen to them than to another person compared to women. 188 students participated in Study 2. They were divided into two groups assigned randomly to one of the two event conditions: happy marriage or divorce and were asked to estimate their own likelihood for that particular event. Subsequently, all participants were given base rate information for the event to which they were assigned (divorce = 25%, happy marriage = 60%). These base rates were based on an official publication of the Government Statistical Reports: Monthly Bulletin of Statistics.

After being exposed to base rate information, all respondents were asked to estimate the likelihood of the event occurring to them, and to estimate the likelihood of the event occurring to someone else. The findings for this study reported, that both men and women show high levels of unrealistic optimism regarding a happy marriage and a divorce. Compared to men, women with a positive prior were influenced by the base rate information regarding a happy marriage. However, neither women nor men updated their estimates about their own divorce. In the other hand, men’s answers with a negative prior got influenced by the provided base rates at the beginning of the study whereas women’s answers were only influenced when talking about a happy marriage, but not about divorce.

In general terms, both studies showed that both men and women tend to be influenced by optimistic bias about their expectations of their marriage. However, men showed greater levels of unrealistic optimism than women did. Regarding base rate information, women were more realistic in their estimates about a happy marriage compared to their estimates of getting divorced. Finally, only men with a negative initial prior were influenced by base rates whereas men with a positive initial prior do not updated their self- estimates.

Gender vs. Culture

The data used in both studies was collected using a Taiwanese sample (collectivist culture). However, the experimenters found that this bias is a universal phenomenon that occurs to both individualist and collectivist cultures. Moreover, recent work has reported that the bias is lower for participants who belong to collectivist cultures such as Japanese compared to individualist cultures such as Canadians. Because marriage is considered a relational aspect, consistent with a collectivist attribute, the population under this domain should show unrealistic levels of optimism.


Unrealistic optimism is a universal phenomenon that affects both gender and cultural differences around the world. Recent findings have demonstrated that both men and women across cultures (Eastern vs. Western) tend to be unrealistically optimistic about avoiding frequent/negative events, and unrealistically pessimistic about avoiding infrequent/negative events. However, the extent to which men vs. women and Eastern vs. Western cultures are affected by the bias varies among them. Being the West an independent and individualist culture, they report a higher tendency to be unrealistically optimistic. In contrast, being the East an interdependent and collectivist culture they present lower levels of unrealistic bias. At the same time, men and women have reported to be biased to some extent. Men have reported higher levels of unrealistic optimism, whereas women have shown to be less likely influenced by this threat. Now the question is: have you ever felt influenced by unrealistic bias?

Cite this essay

Unrealistic Optimism Gender and Culture. (2016, Dec 11). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/re-unrealistic-optimism-gender-and-culture-essay

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