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Coronavirus Disease 2019

Unrealistic Optimism, Safety, and COVID-19

New research reveals that caution can make us feel safer than we really are.

Key points

  • Unrealistic optimism is the tendency to believe one is less apt than others to face bad experiences and more apt to enjoy beneficial ones.
  • Unrealistic optimism is linked with minimizing the chances of getting COVID-19 and being less disposed to find out about COVID-9 safety measures.
  • Thinking about one's own protective steps leads to greater unrealistic optimism, which could undermine safety by dropping other safeguards.
  • Safety measures against COVID-19 are vital, making it important to keep this bias in mind.
Pexels/Mathias P.R. Reding
Source: Pexels/Mathias P.R. Reding

It’s widely known that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) have made recommendations on steps we can take to help protect ourselves, our loved ones, and members of our community against COVID-19. I bet a few examples are springing to mind right now, such as getting vaccinated, wearing a mask, maintaining a safe distance, and steering clear of crowded places.

Importantly, amid these recommendations, researchers have been looking at what influences whether or not people follow them, including an all-too-human propensity known as unrealistic optimism. This is the tendency to anticipate that, relative to other folks, our odds of facing adverse circumstances are lower and our odds of enjoying welcome developments in life are higher. And emerging scientific data suggest that this mindset is linked with downplaying the probability of getting COVID-19, feeling less nervous about catching it, and being less inclined to learn more about the chances of becoming ill and how to protect oneself.

But what if these elements were reversed? Put differently, if people actually follow health recommendations, will their unrealistic optimism increase? In a recently published study, a team of researchers explored this very question. More specifically, they examined whether people will hold more unrealistic optimism about their odds of getting COVID-19 (i.e., thinking their odds of contracting the virus are lower than other folks'), and whether thinking about their personal routine of wearing a mask would intensify this bias.

The results of the study showed that people do, indeed, possess unrealistic optimism about their odds of getting COVID-19. Moreover, the experiment also revealed that when people reflect on their use of masks, this caused them to hold more unrealistic optimism compared to people who simply gauged their likelihood of catching the virus without thinking about their own mask use.

Now you may be wondering: Why does this question matter? Sure, people may be less prone to take safety precautions if they’re more unrealistically optimistic, and that’s important to be cognizant of. But for those individuals who are actually following health guidance, who cares if doing so makes them more biased about their own safety? In fact, as the authors indicated, depending on people’s practices (i.e., being at home), such individuals may actually be right in thinking they’re less likely to get sick. So why are we even talking about this?

The researchers highlighted a vital point: If people become more unrealistically optimistic, they could make unsafe choices even after taking steps to safeguard their well-being. This is a concept known as risk compensation. For example, earlier research found that after people received a vaccine against human papillomavirus (HPV), they relaxed a couple of other safety practices that would protect them against getting HPV rather than continuing to maintain them all.

So what can we take away from this research? Does this mean that it’s counterproductive to follow COVID-19 safety recommendations? Absolutely not. As the researchers rightly pointed out, it’s essential to take steps to help safeguard against COVID-19, and those steps work.

They also emphasized that what we need to be mindful of, and what public health messages should highlight, is that the very steps we’re taking to keep ourselves safe could leave us vulnerable to thinking that we’re more shielded against COVID-19 than we actually are. In turn, we might wind up letting down our guard and relaxing certain other preventive practices that are also needed to keep ourselves, our loved ones, and others safe. Thankfully, we don’t have to go down that road.


Brewer, N.T., Cuite, C.L., Herrington, J.E., & Weinstein, N.D. (2007). Risk compensation in vaccination: Can getting vacinated cause people to engage in risky behaviors? Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 34, 95-99.

Park, T., Ju, I., Ohs, J.E., & Hinsley, A. (2021). Optimistic bias and preventive behavioral engagement in the context of COVID-19. Research in Social and Administrative Pharmacy, 17, 1859-1866.

Vieites, Y., Ramos, G. A., Andrade, E. B., Pereira, C., & Medeiros, A. (2021, July 22). Can self-protective behaviors increase unrealistic optimism? Evidence from the COVID-19 pandemic. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied. Advance online publication.

Weinstein, N.D. (1980). Unrealistic optimism about future life events. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 39, 806-820.

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