Optimism Bias: how to feel good and make poor decisions

Advertising veteran Paul Cowan recently released a guidebook to navigating the challenges of commercial relationships, with content derived from empirical data, cognitive psychology, adaption-innovation theory, and personal experience from nearly a half century in the field. Below is an excerpt from ‘Connecting With Clients’ by Cowan.

“The next presentation will turn it around.”

“They love the team in New York, so we’ve got the agency there to tackle one of the brand briefs.”(1)

Agencies seem to attract more positive personality types (2) than others.

Yet despite overwhelming evidence that the worst case does happen, many chief executives view problem accounts through an overly positive lens.

In other businesses, this would have them fired for recklessness or sent off to the Priory Clinic for an indefinite stay.

I’m not kidding. Imagine an airline with a problem aircraft in service and as passengers are about to board the airline chief executive says: “Don’t worry, the next maintenance service will sort the problem out.” I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t be rushing to get on board.

Facing a re-pitch, when everything suggests that the agency has no chance, some very capable CEOs want to ‘have a go’ and are then taken aback by the outcome.

“The decision [not to re-appoint] took us by surprise. It has devastated us.”(1)

The account may have been in the departure lounge for over a year and the outcome inevitable to most; the only surprise then is the fact that the agency CEO was surprised.

These are a few examples of optimism bias, a cognitive bias that deludes us into thinking “it won’t happen to me” when it probably will. It will be operating in your agency, in your boss’s mind and, although you haven’t noticed, in yours too.

Optimism is, after all, part of the universal human condition.

We are all prone to illusions about our personal strengths, despite evidence that our assessment of our qualities and abilities exceeds all objective analysis.(3)

Studies show that most of us perceive ourselves in some way to be superior to the average person.(4)

For example, 85% of us are likely to rate ourselves in the top 50% in our ability to get along well with others and, amazingly, 25% of us are likely to rate ourselves within the top 1%.

In a study, 70% rated themselves above the top 50% in leadership ability.(5)

In case your optimism that agency people are smarter than the rest gets in the way of accepting your own optimism bias, a study among university professors, who, let’s face it, are generally bright people, is salutary; 94% considered themselves above average in teaching ability and 68% rated themselves in the top 25%.(5)

Rather than face depressingly accurate self-perceptions (stop for a moment and check how quickly you dismissed the last few words) it seems that we all massage conclusions about ourselves in order to maintain a positive self-image.(6)

This helps us to create hope for the future and provides the opportunity to raise our levels of motivation and persistence.(7)

In the world of agencies, heightened motivation and task persistence – the ability to stick with something in spite of distractions, physical or emotional discomfort, or lack of immediate success – are important assets.

The challenge is that optimism bias distorts reality, making us prone to poor judgement. Minimal reflection and shallow thinking about ourselves or a problem situation creates the opportunity for poor decisions.

Unless there is a powerful and compelling reason for deeper reflection, like getting fired or being sent to the Priory, we make automatic ‘snap’ self-assessments.(3)

But not always.

An agency CEO – one of the very best in the world, leading one of the best agencies in the world – walked into a meeting room where one of his teams sat congratulating themselves on a recent, highly-acclaimed and effective campaign that had delighted their client.

Instead of simply agreeing with the optimism in the room, the CEO suggested that the team should be concerned about the client’s competitors copying their advertising. He said that instead of celebrating, the team should start to think about developing a new approach for next year’s campaign.

This is a good example of anticipating what could go wrong and then providing clear direction to avoid a future problem.

Things to think about

Take time to reflect on your aptitude and skill. What bias do you bring to your team and to your client relationships?

Learn about your personality. What are your strengths and weaknesses? What are your blind spots?

Work out the worst-case scenario and then find a balanced position.

Remember, tackling a problem today will save you time and angst tomorrow, make the client happier and reduce your future workload.


Gender doesn’t seem to affect the optimism bias.

Yes, women generally tend to have lower expectations of success than men; they attribute success to external sources, tending not to take credit for their contribution, and, as a consequence, denigrate their skill.

Women either accurately assess or underestimate their performance.

By contrast, men tend to accurately assess or overestimate their performance; they also tend to stress the importance of their ability in achieving success.

This difference is thought to substantiate the self-enhancing bias in men and a self-derogatory bias in women.(7)

This could suggest that, with more women working in and managing agencies, optimism bias might reduce.

However, there is no evidence of this; the introductory agency quotes earlier were uttered by both men and women.

Our observation of optimism bias in agencies being evident is irrespective of gender.

This may be because those women that rise to senior agency positions do so because their beliefs, that they are equal to men, allow them to be equal and that those same beliefs carry similar levels of optimism bias.

Paul Cowan is a former UK advertising executive turned client-agency consultant. Listen to Cowan’s extended Mumbrellacast interview here.


1) Client Relationship Consultancy. 2017.
2) Cowan, P. 2006. ‘The Enneagram: An Action Research project to establish the effect of introducing the Enneagram, a model of personality, as an intervention to a team’. MSc Change Agent Skills and Strategies. University of Surrey. Guildford.
3) Gilovich, T. Epley, N & Hanko, K. 2014. ‘Shallow Thoughts About the Self: The Automatic Components of Self-Assessment’. Found in The Self in Social Judgement. New York. Psychology Press.
4) Sharot, T. 2012. The Optimism Bias: Why we are wired to look on the bright side. London. Robinson.
5) Alicke, M & Govorun. 2014. ‘The Better-Than-Average Effect’. Found in The Self in Social Judgement. New York. Psychology Press.
6) Dunning, D. Krueger, J & Alicke, M. 2014. ‘The Self in Social Perception’. Found in The Self in Social Judgement. New York. Psychology Press.
7) Beyer, S. 1990. ‘Gender Differences in the Accuracy of Self-Evaluations of Performance’. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 59:5. 960–970.

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