When good optimism goes bad: unrealistic optimism and effects of question order and event threat

Individuals typically believe that they are less likely than the average person to experience negative events. This effect, known as unrealistic optimism (UO), may be due a combination of motivational and cognitive factors ultimately leading individuals to conclude that they are at comparatively little risk. If so, the greater the "event-threat" (i.e., the more serious the event's consequences), the more reassurance should be required to lessen participant feelings of risk of the event, resulting in greater UO. In addition, the order in which people assess their risk to an event (i.e., the self or the "average other" first) may influence UO estimates. This prediction was tested in a study in which participants (N = 209) were informed about the development of lip cancer due to factors such as increased sun exposure and not wearing sun screen on their lips. The risk was stated to be either rare, easily detectable and curable (low event-threat condition), or common, painful and rather difficult to treat (high event-threat condition). Participants were asked to rate their risk, and the risk of the "average CSUSM student" to develop lip cancer later in life. Question order was also counterbalanced. The effects of event threat and question order were found to interact opposite to predictions. The results are explained in motivational terms and implications for health education are discussed. Keywords: Event threat, order effects, unrealistic optimism