The Risk Management Tool Box Blog

What is Optimistic Bias?

Graham Marshall - Friday, August 03, 2012

I'm sure we would all recognize that we have subjective biases about a wide range of issues.  These cognitive biases are simple judgement short-cuts that have proven useful over time and get repeated because of their utility.

But cognitive biases can, however, lead to faulty decision-making. This is particularly dangerous when it comes to biases about HSE risk.

One example of a cognitive bias that can adversely affect our risk assessment decision-making has been called "optimistic bias".

Optimistic bias is a tendency to overestimate how good we are at things and underestimate our susceptibility to harm, relative to other people

If you've heard people at your workplace say “I won’t get hurt because I’m an expert” or “it won't happen to me”, then you're maybe facing the "optimistic bias".

A scaffolder who refuses to wear a harness, claiming “People hardly ever fall”, or “I won’t fall because I’m an expert” is a typically good example of optimistic bias in action.

In risk assessment, optimistic bias can lead to an underestimation of likelihood and consequence values for potential incident scenarios.

It can also lead to the overestimation of the strength of prevention and escalation controls.

The underestimation of likelihood and consequences and the overestimation of a sense of control can both lead to a reduction in the residual risk score below what is potentially "real".

This can result in insufficient controls and, potentially, to an accident. 

By understanding that the optimistic bias may be present during risk assessments, it is possible to manage the bias and reduce the chance of getting the risk-assessment wrong.

An independent review process is a good starting point for reducing optimistic bias.

Independent reviews of completed risk assessments can  provide an opportunity to challenge assumptions.

Verify information sources and erring on the side of caution are other approaches which can prove useful during risk assessments.

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