(p. 257) One of the benefits of an optimistic temperament is that it encourages persistence in the face of obstacles. But persistence can be costly. An impressive series of studies by Thomas Åstebro sheds light on what happens when optimists receive bad news. He drew his data from a Canadian organization–the Inventors Assistance Program–which collects a small fee to provide inventors with an objective assessment of the commercial prospects of their idea. The evaluations rely on careful ratings of each invention on 37 criteria, including need for the product, cost of production, and estimated trend of demand. The analysts summarize their ratings by a letter grade, where D and E predict failure–a prediction made for over 70% of the inventions they review. The forecasts of failure are remarkably accurate: only 5 of 411 projects that were given the lowest grade reached commercialization, and none was successful.
Discouraging news led about half of the inventors to quit after receiving a grade that unequivocally predicted failure. However, 47% of them continued development efforts even after being told that their project was hopeless, and on average these persistent (or obstinate) individuals doubled their initial losses before giving up. Significantly, persistence after discouraging advice was relatively common among inventors who had a high score on a personality measure of optimism–on which inventors generally scored higher than the general population. Overall, the return on private invention was small, “lower than the return on private equity and on high-risk securities.” More generally, the financial benefits of self-employment are mediocre: given the same qualifications, people achieve higher average returns by selling their skills to employers than by setting out on their own. The evidence suggests that optimism is widespread, stubborn, and costly.
Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011.