The Role of Nonmotivated Factors in Above-Average and Comparative-Optimism Effects
John R. Chambers and Paul D. Windschitl
Biases in social comparative judgments, such as those illustrated by above-average and comparative optimism effects, are often regarded as products of motivated reasoning (e.g., self-enhancement). These effects, however, can also be produced by information-processing limitations or aspects of judgment processes that are not necessarily biased by motivational factors. In this article, the authors briefly review motivational accounts of biased comparative judgments, introduce a 3-stage model for understanding how people make comparative judgments, and then describe how various nonmotivational factors can influence the 3 stages of the comparative judgment process. Finally, the authors discuss several unresolved issues highlighted by their analysis, such as the interrelation between motivated and nonmotivated sources of bias and the influence of nonmotivated sources of bias on behavior.
Whether Positive Illusions are “motivated” or not has been a substantial controversy in social psychology. A belief is said to be “motivated” if we believe it because the belief is in some way desirable or psychologically helpful rather than because it is true. In social psychology it seems that the general assumption is that optimism bias is motivated by the desire to maintain a positive self-image and self-esteem, though if the belief is adopted because it is socially approved or socially helpful it would also be “motivated.” The authors argue somewhat convincingly that these apparent biases arise either from an inability or reluctance to make accurate social comparisons that arises in part from the difficulty of doing so.
For example, people generally feel that they are less likely than average to suffer a wide range of misfortunes. When asked why, for example, they are less likely to be mugged, they will say that they take protective actions (not going in bad neighborhoods at night.) This bias is reduced when people are told to consider the protective measures that others take.
We note that this sort of generation of spurious support when challenged for explanation seems characteristic of all manner of explanations for gut feelings (see The Interpreter Theory.)