Costs and Benefits of Optimism


The project was made possible by a 12-month non-residential fellowship awarded to Lisa Bortolotti and Anneli Jefferson (Philosophy Department, University of Birmingham) by the Philosophy of Hope and Optimism funding initiative at the University of Notre Dame and Cornell University, supported by the John Templeton Foundation. The project started on 1st September 2015 and has now ended.

Project summary

Is it beneficial or detrimental to be optimistic? The empirical literature suggests that some forms of optimism can be good for us, helping us to achieve our goals and react positively to setbacks, but other forms of optimism lead to disappointment or to excessively risky behaviour. Our project aimed to develop a new framework in which these findings can be interpreted.

The first step is to distinguish between different forms of optimism and to discuss how they relate to one another. The second step is to establish what costs and benefits a bias towards optimism can have, and consider its effects on wellbeing, genetic fitness, moral behaviour, and knowledge. Whereas there is already a vast empirical literature on the contributions of optimism to wellbeing, different forms of optimism have not been carefully distinguished, and this has prevented researchers from arriving at a clear, overall picture of the impact of optimism on human agency. In particular, the question how optimism affects agents’ knowledge and moral behaviour has yet to be addressed systematically.

The proposal is that optimism benefits agents when it supports (rather than interferes with) engaged agency, that is, agents’ capacity to interact successfully with the surrounding physical and social environment. This hypothesis is a new contribution to the debate, and it is informed by previous work that Lisa Bortolotti (the principal investigator) and Anneli Jefferson (the research fellow) have already undertaken in different but complementary areas: the costs and benefits of irrational beliefs, the role of the optimism bias in belief updating, the limitations of self-enhancing beliefs, and the effects of thinking styles on moral agency.

The project has had and will continue to have a number of scholarly outputs, and gave rise to one public engagement event and one two-day interdisciplinary conference on optimism. Results are disseminated widely via regular posts on the Imperfect Cognitions blog, and via the project Twitter account.


Our project on Costs and Benefits of Optimism was compliant with the BPA/SWIP Good Practice Scheme and had policies and procedures in place that encouraged the representation of women in philosophy.