Unrealistic optimism about susceptibility to health problems: conclusions from a community-wide sample

J Behav Med. 1987 Oct;10(5):481-500. doi: 10.1007/BF00846146.


A mailed questionnaire was used to obtain comparative risk judgments for 32 different hazards from a random sample of 296 individuals living in central New Jersey. The results demonstrate that an optimistic bias about susceptibility to harm--a tendency to claim that one is less at risk than one's peers--is not limited to any particular age, sex, educational, or occupational group. It was found that an optimistic bias is often introduced when people extrapolate from their past experience to estimate their future vulnerability. Thus, the hazards most likely to elicit unrealistic optimism are those associated with the belief (often incorrect) that if the problem has not yet appeared, it is unlikely to occur in the future. Optimistic biases also increase with the perceived preventability of a hazard and decrease with perceived frequency and personal experience. Other data presented illustrate the inconsistent relationships between personal risk judgments and objective risk factors.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Attitude to Health*
  • Disease Susceptibility / psychology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Motivation*
  • Psychological Tests
  • Psychometrics
  • Psychophysiologic Disorders / psychology*
  • Risk Factors