Monday, 3 October 2016

The Hubris Hypothesis

This post is by Vera Hoorens (Leuven University) who recently wrote a paper entitled, "The Hubris Hypothesis: The Downside of Comparative Optimism Displays", together with Carolien Van Damme, Marie Helweg-Larsen, and Constantine Sedikides. The paper is to appear in a special issue of Consciousness and Cognition on unrealistic optimism, guest edited by Anneli Jefferson, Lisa Bortolotti, and Bojana Kuzmanovic.


Optimism has many positive consequences. This makes one expect that people encourage and admire other individuals’ optimism. We speculated, however, that the extent to which they do so depends on how these individuals display their optimism. They may express absolute optimism, saying that their future will be good, or comparative optimism, saying that their future will be better than other people’s futures. Based on the hubris hypothesis, we predicted that this distinction would determine how observers respond.

The hubris hypothesis states that observers respond more unfavorably to individuals who express self-superiority views comparatively than to those who express self-superiority views non-comparatively, because observers infer that the former hold a more disparaging view of others and particularly of observers. With comparative optimism being an instance of self-superiority beliefs, we predicted more unfavorable observer reactions to a comparatively optimistic claimant than to an absolutely optimistic claimant, due to observers’ inference of a more disparaging view of them in the former case than in the latter. We tested these predictions in two experiments.


Experiment 1 tested the prediction that observers respond more unfavorably to expressions of comparative optimism than to expressions of absolute optimism, even though they may generally respond more favorably to optimism than to pessimism. Participants (observers) saw likelihood ratings that a claimant had allegedly made for a set of events on a questionnaire about future expectations. These ratings were absolute or comparative, and they expressed optimism, pessimism, or neutrality.

Experiment 2 tested the prediction that individuals expressing comparative (vs. absolute) optimism come across as holding more unfavorable future expectations for the observers, and that this is the reason why observers respond more unfavorably to expressions of comparative optimism than to expressions of absolute optimism. Participants again saw likelihood ratings that a claimant had allegedly made. These ratings were always optimistic, and they were either absolutely or comparatively so. Participants in both experiments evaluated the claimant on warmth and competence, and indicated their affiliative preferences for her or him. In Experiment 2, among other additional measures, they also indicated (i.e., inferred) how likely the claimant thought the events were in their (i.e., the participants’) future.


As predicted, participants attributed less warmth (but not less competence) to, and reported a weaker desire to affiliate with, the comparative optimism claimant than the absolute optimism claimant (Experiment 1 & 2), even though they evaluated a comparative optimism claimant as more competent (but not warmer) than a comparative pessimism claimant, and wished to affiliate more with the former than with the latter (Experiment 1).

Participants also inferred that the claimant viewed their future more unfavorably when the claimant expressed comparative optimism rather than absolute optimism, and mediational analyses indicated that observers’ liking for the claimant depended on observers’ inferences about how the claimant viewed their future. (Experiment 2).


As predicted by the hubris hypothesis, then, people respond more unfavourably to individuals expressing comparative optimism than to individuals expressing absolute optimism, because they infer that the comparatively optimistic claimant regards their own future as bleak.

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