Marketing’s Least Loved: Optimism and pessimism

In her regular column for Mumbrella, VMLY&R chief strategy officer Alison Tilling discusses whether these two polar opposites can co-exist.

Optimism and pessimism, operating in the same brain at the same time?

Sounds like BS at worst, and uncomfortable at best. How can these both exist? Do they work together or fight each other? As with the best tensions, the right balance can help to make better decisions, particularly around innovation and disruption.

Let’s start with the glass half full

Optimism bias is the human tendency to overestimate our own likelihood of experiencing positive events and underestimate our own likelihood of experiencing negative ones. A bit of this bias is great: it encourages us to try new things and keep going when times are tough.

It also comes at a cost, because it can mean ignoring the potential for unwanted or negative outcomes from decisions we make. Take climate change. Research by Yale University in 2018 showed that while many in the global west understand and are concerned about climate change, they think it will affect other people and leave them unscathed. Yet McKinsey estimates that by 2030, nearly one in four people could be exposed to a climate hazard severe enough to affect their lives or livelihoods.

That’s where pessimism bias* comes in. This is the tendency to overestimate the likelihood of negative events. It’s related to negativity bias, which causes our emotional response to negative events to feel amplified in comparison to positive ones – part of the reason that negative feedback or experiences tend to be shared more. In the corporate world, pessimism and negativity can lead to an inability for brands and corporations to embrace change, and that can have huge repercussions that I’ll come back to later.

A tug-of-war between the personal and the societal

The key difference is this: optimism bias tends to figure more strongly around our own personal decisions and experiences, while pessimism and negativity bias figure more strongly around societal ones.

This seems sensible, a design of the brain to motivate us to act in our own lives and be careful of wider context for our own protection. It’s dangerous, though. People can feel optimistic about the effect of climate change on their personal experience yet still feel paralysed by the size of the problem for society overall. This combination of lack of personal impact and societal negativity can land us in the worst of all possible worlds.

Operate as a duo, overcome as a duo

In this tug of war, there are ways to harness both optimism and pessimism to bring out the best decisions and encourage innovative but well thought through action. Here are a few ways to make it happen for brands.

Use a pre-mortem to make the tension work harder

A pre-mortem is Kahneman’s favourite technique for torture-testing decisions, but he didn’t invent it; psychologist Gary Klein did, in 1989. A pre-mortem is usually used to mitigate optimism bias, to sensitise the team to what can go wrong, by imagining and listing reasons why it already has – but it can be used to counter negativity bias too. Next time you are turning an idea into action, split the team in two, imagine you’ve put your plan in place and it is a year down the track. One half of the team is given the certainty that the idea has failed and needs to list as many reasons as they can why that has happened. The other half is given the certainty that it has been a success. The two resulting stories will help find the sweet spot in the tension between overconfidence and under-imagining.

How will you kill your company today?

Founder and CEO of Futurethink, Lisa Bodell, has an interesting take on this too, in an exercise and book called ‘Kill the Company’. This is an effective way to overcome negativity bias and loss aversion, by thinking in your competitors’ shoes (and in culture and category shoes) and imagining all the ways you could kill your company. This forces corporations to focus less on what they might have to lose through market disruption, and more on the necessity of, or possible gain from, change. Kodak is a salutary example. Kodak’s problem wasn’t so much out-done by competitors as it was out-done by its own fixation on losing market share in film.

Piss screens and forcing the issue

Back in 2010, Frankfurt taxi drivers worked with developers to create a game to reduce male drink-driving by confronting men with their own optimism bias – at the urinal. The urine controlled the car (stay with me here) and the more drunk the player, the more spectacular the crash that ended the game, with a prompt to take a taxi instead. Forcing the issue in the appropriate moment can be powerful for behaviour change generally, and it can work for negativity as well as optimism bias. The excellent Reasons to Be Cheerful project does this well, combatting the negativity of the news cycle in the right moment.

While optimism and pessimism can be out of balance, harnessing the two and using their tension to explore decisions and highlight the need for innovation can be extremely powerful. This is one tug-of-war that’s worth the fight.

*Note: pessimism bias can be a prominent cognitive feature of depression, something I am not qualified to write about. While everyone can experience it to some degree, this article deals more with pessimism and negativity bias at a corporate level.

Alison Tilling is the chief strategy officer at VMLY&R. Marketing’s Least Loved is a regular Mumbrella column.


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