There is prevailing wisdom that pessimists tend to be right, but optimists are successful. Optimism to me is what gives entrepreneurs the confidence and oftentimes stubbornness to innovate, adapt, get things done and never give up. Certainly, I’ve always found it essential to take an instinctively optimistic, if realistic, view in life and business.
As the sobering global impact of the COVID-19 crisis sets in, it might seem counter intuitive to espouse a case for optimism. But if you bear with me, let me use the lens of behavioral science to explain why I believe in it so passionately, especially right now.
The circumstances of the global pandemic, in terms of lives lost and potential long-term impact on our global economy, could drive anyone to a pessimistic view. The ways we operate, particularly in an industry such as market research, will likely change dramatically as consumer behavior changes. Any change is unsettling and can be painful. How can behavioral science focus us on what we CAN do and how we can formulate an optimistic action plan?
Let’s start with a truism: anecdotally Winston Churchill is credited for saying "a pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty." Well, behavioral science would tell us that this is a function of Anchoring and Framing.
If we Frame the lessons we are learning with a view towards optimism, the resilient, innovative mechanisms we develop to cope during COVID-19 will serve us well when the crisis abates. Through optimism, we can even imagine a future in which we emerge stronger, with more adaptable and impactful ways to work together and serve our customers. How well we take advantage of these lessons, will depend entirely on how we CHOOSE to see things and behave, even in the face of adversity.
Behavioral scientist Sheena Iyengar, author of The Art of Choosing puts it this way:
“What you see determines how you interpret the world, which in turn influences what you expect of the world and how you expect the story of your life to unfold… When we speak of choice, what we mean is the ability to exercise control over ourselves and our environment. In order to choose, we must first perceive that control is possible.”
Pragmatically, it even appears choosing optimism is actually good for you! Scientists believe there actually is a physical benefit in the practice of optimism.
In a 2017 Forbes article, entitled Brain Science Reveals the Striking Power of Optimism, contributor Carmine Gallo described the power of positive thinking:
“The key is to think like an optimist: When bad things happen, believe that they won’t last forever and that the good will return. Brain scientists say if you cultivate a positive attitude, you will live longer and be a sharper leader.”
This reminded me of some of Ben Horowitz’s advice on running businesses. Horowitz is a respected Silicon Valley VC and entrepreneur and the author of the New York Times best seller The Hard thing about Hard Things. It has been touted as one of the past decade’s most practical guides to entrepreneurism and the challenges that come with it.
Horowitz says that an entrepreneur has to believe every hardship is temporary. That’s what enables leaders to take risks, weather storms and out-last adversity. Because even if starting or growing a business amidst economic disruption presents real challenges, the period of crisis will inevitably pass. To paraphrase, we might even be tempted to say, “When the going gets tough, the tough get optimistic!”
To be fair, behavioral scientists have warned against “over optimism bias” as the foundation for bad choices, some that have led to man-made disasters in the past.
But in 2009 Dan Ariely, one of the most quoted thought leaders in behavioral science looked at the 2008 financial crisis and the subsequent recession, and made a case for optimism as a behavioral framework for action and return to prosperity. His thoughts about the role of optimism in the recovery from that last downturn surely have some relevance now:
“So are there objective reasons for optimism in the current  recession? There are. Amid the countless half-empty glasses strewn about at the moment, there are many that could be viewed as half-full. Most important, there are lessons we can absorb – insights that point to ways we can improve things. And what’s more optimistic than believing in the possibility of improvement?”
There are signals that epicenters of the virus (in Italy, Spain and US regions such as New York, and PRS IN VIVO’s HQ location in New Jersey) may be approaching the apex in the coming days and weeks and we may start seeing signs of good news. But there are also signals we are in for a marathon, and not a sprint, till the most dangerous aspects of the novel COVID-19 are mitigated, and we can start safely healing our collective psyches and rebuilding the economy. When will we get to this “new normal”? Well it is impossible to predict.
But we WILL get there. And I am betting on sensible, realistic optimism grounded in behavioral science to fuel innovation, inspire and propel us forward. Optimism, and a decent supply of hand sanitizer!
Alex Hunt is the CEO of PRS IN VIVO, a BVA Group company, which provides behaviorally driven consultancy in shopper and product experience. Follow Alex on Twitter @AlexHunt84 and Instagram @AlexHunt71214.