A new study in the Journal of Consumer Research has revealed that being optimistic is not always beneficial, for it may lead people to make such immediate choices as go against their long-term goals.
During the study, University of Chicago researchers Ying Zhang and Ayelet Fishbach and Yale University researcher Ravi Dhar observed how different mindsets worked in conjunction with an optimistic attitude.
The researchers found that people were more likely to make a detrimental decision—such as eating an unhealthy snack—when they thought about their goals in terms of progress.
However, when people focussed on commitment to a goal, they were more likely to choose an action consistent with its attainment.
"For example, when (a) workout is framed as progress toward the goal of being healthy, going to the gym elicits the perception of partial goal attainment and suggests that it is justified to enjoy a tasty but fatty cake," the researchers said.
"In contrast, when (a) workout is framed as commitment to the goal of being healthy, going to the gym signals being healthy is important and thus suggests that one should refrain from the tasty but fatty cake to ensure the final goal can be attained," they added.
In the first study, the researchers asked one group of participants to indicate how often they went to the gym the previous year. The other group was asked to predict how often they expected to go to the gym next year, a goal which is yet to be achieved.
The researchers found that the participants who were asked to think about exercise as a future endeavour were more likely to take a bottle of spring water over a can of sugared soda than those who were asked to think about the exercise they had already completed.
In another experiment, the researchers asked the participants to visualize and write about either the process or completion of a gym workout session, a manipulation of the optimism bias. The participants were also asked to estimate the duration of their next workout and to complete a survey that measured their interest in healthy foods.
"Relatively little is understood about how thinking optimistically about future goal pursuit can impact the immediate decision to pursue the ongoing goal, and what the direction of the impact would be," the researchers said.
"Accordingly, this research suggests that marketers should consider not only the tradeoffs among the alternatives when making a choice, but also the relationship of this choice to past or future choices," they added.