‘Optimism bias’, the Coronavirus and Greek tragedy

All over the world, certain political leaders were too slow to act in the face of the Coronavirus pandemic.  Some of them have been lifting their ‘lockdowns’ too quickly.  The reasons for this are multiple and yet variable according to each country concerned: complacency; incompetence; stupidity; understandably sketchy scientific data and limited evidence; bad luck; legitimate worries about the impact on the economy, jobs, education and people’s overall wellbeing; electoral-political priorities; not being Jacinda Ardern, Angela Merkel, or Tsai Ing-wen.

But in some cases, those leaders of places which have done, or are doing, badly also seem to have convinced themselves that their country would fare better than others.  The psychological tendency to ‘hope for the best’ rather than ‘plan for the worst’ is very human and understandable.  As individuals, as a community or as a nation, we can be overconfident about our prospects despite plenty of evidence that real trouble lies ahead.  Cognitive scientists call this ‘optimism bias’.  Their experiments and observations document a tendency to underestimate the costs and durations of projects, to ‘focus on the causal role of skill and neglect the role of luck’ and to ‘focus on what we know and neglect what we do not know’ (Kahneman, 2011, p. 259).* Optimism bias often leads to the underestimation of risks when decision-taking.  Occasionally, such errors of calculation can nevertheless result in beneficial innovations and successes. But they can also cause projects and policies to fail disastrously, take too long or cost too much.

The ancient Greeks understood the psychological and ideological value of positive thinking about future risks and opportunities.  But they also knew the importance being realistic.  The ancient Greek word for ‘hope’ is elpis but it is often best rendered as ‘expectation’: one can have elpis of good outcomes but also elpis of bad ones. In the famous myth of Pandora as told by Hesiod, she opened a jar left in her care containing sickness, death and many other unspecified evils which were then released into the world. Though she was quick to close the container, only one thing was left behind inside: elpis. The symbolism and meaning of this are not clear. Scholars continue to debate the problem.  But on any interpretation, the myth illustrates the Greeks’ sense that the managing of expectations was a really significant part of what it meant to be human.

As for ‘optimism bias’, well, in their own way, the ancient Greeks already knew about this tendency too, and they used the format of mass entertainment to discuss it.  In Euripides’ tragedy The Suppliant Women, a play performed before and audience of thousands of citizens of Athens’ democracy, there is a debate between Theseus, the mythical king of Athens, and a Theban herald who has come to tell him that the tyrant of Thebes, Creon, will not give back the unburied bodies of the Argives’ dead, following a battle between Argos and Thebes. (Theseus has intervened on behalf of Argos’ grieving mothers and their king).  The herald warns Theseus against proposing war against Thebes to the people of Athens (476–91, trans. James Morwood):

Take thought, and do not, in your rage at my
words on the grounds that you have a free city,
make a puffed-up answer, when you have less to be confident about.
For we should not trust in the hope (elpis) which has engaged many cities
in conflict, urging their passions to excess.
For whenever war comes to be voted on by the people,
no-one any longer reckons on his own death
but assumes that this disaster will come to someone else.
If death were before the eyes when the vote is cast,
Greece would never be suffering destruction in its madness for war.

The herald’s vivid point is that citizens of Greek cities would not so readily vote for a war if they had death before their eyes and did not entertain the over-confident expectation that someone else, and not they themselves, would die in that war. This very closely matches some of the alleged symptoms of what we now call ‘groupthink’: for example, its tendency to create illusions of invulnerability which in turn encourage excessive risk-taking. But it especially brings out that aspect of optimism bias wherein decision-makers neglect the operations of chance and ‘unknowns’ in their calculations of risk.

In Suppliant Women, Theseus does lead his Athenians into battle with the Thebans and he successfully retrieves the unburied bodies whilst refraining from sacking Thebes once that objective is secured.  But the play’s early scenes also explore the gung-ho optimism which influenced Argos’ king to agree to an attack on Thebes, despite the warnings of oracles and prophets.  And it’s fascinating that the audience of this play – full of Athenian men who themselves regularly debated and voted on whether or not to go to war  – are confronted with the role that ‘optimism bias’ might be playing in their own life-and-death deliberations.

Tragedy here seems to be offering food for thought for a society which often promoted a ‘hope for the best’ meme as a key component in its civic ideology military courage and manliness.  Here is the orator and politician Demosthenes describing the Athenian troops who fought in battles to support the Thebans and Corinthians in the 390s BCE (On the Crown 97, trans. adapted from Stephen Usher’s):

They were willing to expose themselves to the dangers for the sake of their good name and honour; and their decision was right and noble! […]  It is the duty of the brave men to engage in every noble enterprise that comes their way, with good hope (agathē elpis) as their shield, and to bear with noble heart whatever outcome the god imposes.

One of my hopes is that our own playwrights and screenwriters are soon able to take a leaf out of Euripides’ book when they come to tell the story of this pandemic.   They need to explore and expose the biases, wrong assumptions and dangerous habits of thought which have led to unnecessary deaths and suffering.  Hindsight is a wonderful thing, of course, but tragic storytelling helps us to appreciate how error-prone we are and where the points of failure have occurred.  Without that appreciation, we’ll find it hard to do any better next time.**

*Kahneman, D. (2011) Thinking, Fast and Slow. London and New York: Penguin.

** You can read more on Euripides’ (and Thucydides’) exploration of what cognitive and behavioural scientists call ‘biases’ and ‘heuristics’ in my open access article here.