Authors Robin J. Tanner (University of Wisconsin-Madison) and Kurt A. Carlson (Duke University) uncovered a specific process that they believe contributes to unrealistic optimism.
The researchers also suggested a method to encourage consumers to think more realistically about their future actions.
"Consumers adopt the tentative hypothesis that they will behave in an ideal fashion when predicting their future behaviour. Unrealistic optimism by consumers may have negative consequences for both marketers and consumers. For example, if a consumer holds unrealistically optimistic beliefs about how often they will work out in the future, then they may overpay for home exercise equipment," explained the authors.
The researchers carried out a series of studies, in which they provided the participants with idealized estimates for particular behaviours (e.g., In an ideal world, how often would you exercise next week?)
Then they asked participants to provide a second estimate (e.g. How often will you exercise next week?).
It was found that when people are first asked to predict what would happen in an ideal world, then asked how they actually expect to do, they are more realistic.
Interestingly, when researchers explicitly instructed participants not to be idealistic, the experiment backfired and led to even more unrealistic estimates.
The researchers also found that more decisive people were less realistic.
"An important potential consequence of being overly optimistic about one's future behaviour is that such optimistic beliefs may contribute to overbuying of products that see little use," wrote the authors.
The study is published in the Journal of Consumer Research.