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Biases in social comparisons: Optimism or pessimism?

  • Menon, Geeta
  • Kyung, Ellie J.
  • Agrawal, Nidhi
Registered author(s):

    Social comparisons typically lead to two kinds of biases: A comparative optimism bias (i.e., a tendency for people to view themselves as more likely than others to be the beneficiaries of positive outcomes) or a comparative pessimism bias (i.e., a tendency for people to view themselves as less likely than others to be such beneficiaries); rarely are people fully calibrated in terms of how they compare to others. However, there is little systematic research on the factors that determine when a comparative optimism versus pessimism bias will occur, how they can be attenuated and whether such attenuation is always desirable. In this paper, we report four studies which demonstrate the following key results: First, we show that perceived level of control over the outcome drives whether a comparative optimism or pessimism bias will occur (Study 1). Second, an increase in perceived similarity between self and a comparison target person attenuates the comparative optimism bias in domains that people view as highly controllable (Study 2a) and attenuates the comparative pessimism bias in domains that people view as less controllable (Study 2b). Finally, we show that people are willing to work harder when they experience more comparative optimism in higher control scenarios and when they experience less comparative pessimism in lower control scenarios, illustrating that motivating people to strive harder for positive outcomes can result from exacerbated or attenuated bias, depending on the context (Study 3).

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    Article provided by Elsevier in its journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.

    Volume (Year): 108 (2009)
    Issue (Month): 1 (January)
    Pages: 39-52

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    Handle: RePEc:eee:jobhdp:v:108:y:2009:i:1:p:39-52
    Contact details of provider: Web page: http://www.elsevier.com/locate/obhdp

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    1. Menon, Geeta & Raghubir, Priya & Schwarz, Norbert, 1995. " Behavioral Frequency Judgments: An Accessibility-Diagnosticity Framework," Journal of Consumer Research, University of Chicago Press, vol. 22(2), pages 212-28, September.
    2. Klar, Yechiel & Medding, Aviva & Sarel, Dan, 1996. "Nonunique Invulnerability: Singular versus Distributional Probabilities and Unrealistic Optimism in Comparative Risk Judgments," Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Elsevier, vol. 67(2), pages 229-245, August.
    3. Menon, Geeta & Block, Lauren G & Ramanathan, Suresh, 2002. " We're at As Much Risk As We Are Led to Believe: Effects of Message Cues on Judgments of Health Risk," Journal of Consumer Research, University of Chicago Press, vol. 28(4), pages 533-49, March.
    4. Raghubir, Priya & Menon, Geeta, 1998. " AIDS and Me, Never the Twain Shall Meet: The Effects of Information Accessibility on Judgments of Risk and Advertising Effectiveness," Journal of Consumer Research, University of Chicago Press, vol. 25(1), pages 52-63, June.
    5. Luce, Mary Frances & Kahn, Barbara E, 1999. " Avoidance or Vigilance? The Psychology of False-Positive Test Results," Journal of Consumer Research, University of Chicago Press, vol. 26(3), pages 242-59, December.
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