Wired for Optimism?

Ana Maria Island © Natalia Martinez

I thought I’d share this article from Time Magazine, entitled “The Optimism Bias.” As a clarification, “optimism bias” (the often misguided belief that our future will be better than our past and our present).

I won’t paraphrase the article since it is a good read to begin with. It often makes references to research conducted by the author or otherwise, which I find a breath of fresh air – I don’t need another fluffy article about optimism being pretty. I want to know how our brains are wired for optimism and why it has persisted over time despite not giving us an accurate perception of reality. This article does just that.

I’ll kip entire sections based on specific data, but here are a couple of more abstract quotes/takeaways:

“People with mild depression are relatively accurate at predicting future events.” People suffering from depression are not. Interestingly, neither are optimists!

“Collectively we can grow pessimistic – about the direction of our country or the ability of our leaders to improve education or reduce crime. But private optimism, about our personal future, remains incredibly resilient.”

“Overly positive assumptions can lead to disastrous miscalculations — make us less likely to get health checkups, apply sunscreen or open a savings account, and more likely to bet the farm on a bad investment. But the bias also protects and inspires us: it keeps us moving forward rather than to the nearest high-rise ledge. Without optimism, our ancestors might never have ventured far from their tribes and we might all be cave dwellers, still huddled together and dreaming of light and heat. To make progress, we need to be able to imagine alternative realities — better ones — and we need to believe that we can achieve them.”

“Optimists in general work longer hours and tend to earn more. Economists at Duke University found that optimists even save more. And although they are not less likely to divorce, they are more likely to remarry — an act that is, as Samuel Johnson wrote, the triumph of hope over experience.”

“A growing body of scientific evidence points to the conclusion that optimism may be hardwired by evolution into the human brain […] the core function of memory could in fact be to imagine the future – and enable us to prepare for what has yet to come.”

“Optimism starts with what may be the most extraordinary of human talents: mental time travel […] It allows us to plan ahead, to save food and resources for times of scarcity, and to endure hard world in anticipation of a future reward. […] While mental time travel has clear survival advantages, conscious foresight came to humans at an enormous price – the understanding that somewhere in the future, death awaits […] The only way conscious mental time travel could have arisen over the course of evolution is if it emerged together with irrational optimism. Knowledge of death has to emerge side by side with the persistent ability to picture a bright future.”

“The problem with pessimistic expectation is that they have the power to alter the future; negative expectations shape outcomes in a negative way […] Examining brain-imaging data, Bengtsson found that students’ brains responded differently to mistakes they made depending on whether they were primed with the word clever or the word stupid […] when the participants were primed with the word stupid, there was no heightened [brain] activity after a wrong answer. It appears that after being primed, the brain expected to do poorly and did not show signs of surprise or conflict when it made an error.”

“Brains that don’t expect good results and assume the bad, “will fail to learn from their mistakes and are less likely to improve over time. Expectations become self-fulfilling by altering our performance and actions.”

How do we maintain a rosy bias even when information to the contrary is readily available? “The findings are striking: when people learn, their neurons faithfully encode desirable information that can enhance optimism but fail at incorporating unexpectedly undesirable information. When we hear a success story, our brains take note of the possibility that we too may become immensely rich one day. But hearing that the odds of divorce are almost 1 in 2 tends not to make us think that our own marriages may be destined to fail.”

“It is tempting to speculate that optimism was selected by evolution precisely because, on balance, positive expectations enhance the odds of survival. Research findings that optimists live longer and are healthier, plus the fact that most humans display optimistic biases […] all strongly support this hypothesis. Yet optimism is also irrational and can lead to unwanted outcomes. The question then is, How can we remain hopeful — benefiting from the fruits of optimism — while at the same time guarding ourselves from its pitfalls? I believe knowledge is key. We are not born with an innate understanding of our biases. The brain’s illusions have to be identified by careful scientific observation and controlled experiments and then communicated to the rest of us.

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