Do Job Seekers Benefit from an Optimism Bias?

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How optimistic are you about landing a new job in 2017? By this time of year resolutions are abandoned, but career goals have longer lifespans and we’re more confident that we can perform in our chosen line of work.

Take for instance a BusinessWeek poll of 2,000 US executives and middle managers conducted 10 years ago. They predicted that by 2017 the average person will have better working conditions and women and minorities will have an easier time getting ahead. While it would be interesting to see if they now think we’re better off, the most compelling takeaway from the poll was this: 90 percent of respondents believe they’re in the top 10 percent of performers.

That still holds true today. How many of us think we’re at least above average when it comes to honesty, getting along with others or, better yet, how well we’re able to drive a car?

“People tend to be overly optimistic about their relative standing on any activity in which they do moderately well,” wrote Daniel Kahneman in his 2011 book “Thinking, Fast and Slow.”

When we apply for jobs, we’re typically more optimistic that we will get an offer despite unfavorable odds of being, say, one of 100 applicants, one of 10 interviewees, or one of four finalists. We suffer from the Special Snowflake Syndrome, but perhaps less pejoratively an optimism bias.

In a New York Times article last year called, “Why We Think We’re Better Investors Than We Are,” author Gary Belsky explained why amateur investors think they can outperform the market instead of professional money managers. The biases and cognitive errors outlined in the article could easily apply to job seekers. Some experts would argue successful job seekers must have these traits.

Optimism bias: The tendency to believe you will succeed despite long odds (see number of applications).

Hindsight bias: The tendency to rewrite your own history to make yourself look good (see every resume and cover letter ever written).

Attribution bias: The tendency to find reasons for outcomes where you take credit for successes and blame failures on uncontrollable factors (see explaining a job promotion or dismissal).

Confirmation bias: The tendency to give too much weight to information that supports existing beliefs and discount that which does not (see pursuing a job that matches your degree or early-career experience).

Job seekers must not lose sight of reality, particularly when it comes to presenting an ethical candidacy. But it’s important to remain optimistic.

Tali Sharot, a cognitive neuroscientist, conducted an outstanding TED Talk on optimism bias, discussing both the benefits and dangers of optimism. Yes, as a job seeker, you must not ignore the risks – competition, tuition costs, time commitments, etc. – but the rewards of having high expectations include the following:

By interpreting successes and failures through an attribution bias, we feel better about ourselves and believe we possess the traits that employers desire in candidates. If you don’t think your traits tie directly to your success, neither will a hiring committee.

The anticipation of future career opportunities makes us happier. This is why, according to Sharot, people prefer Fridays over Sundays even though Fridays are workdays. Anticipating potential open positions and job offers enhances our well-being. Otherwise, not having any job leads or applications submitted will feel like a Monday morning.

Optimism makes you try harder. If being qualified for a job becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, guess what? You are more determined to fulfill it. “Optimism is not only related to success, it leads to success,” Sharot said.

According to Sharot, 80 percent of people have an optimism bias. But, like an optical illusion, acknowledging that it exists doesn’t make it go away. Sharot suggests that we need to strike a balance.

“We would like to protect ourselves from the dangers of optimism,” Sharot said, “but at the same time remain hopeful, benefitting from the many fruits of optimism.”

For job seekers, those fruits could be your next job offer.

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