Seeing the world through rose tinted glasses
Tali Sharot is a cognitive neuroscientist who studies why people’s brain tend to be more biased to optimism than pessimism. In 2012, her book ‘The Optimism Bias: a Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brain’ was published detailing new insights into workings of the brain and the major role that optimism plays in determining how we live our lives – it was a huge success. In February 2012, prior to the release of her book, Sharot delivered a Ted Talk which focused on her research into the Optimism Bias. To date, this Ted Talk has received almost 2 million views.
Optimism Bias is our tendency to overestimate our likelihood of experiencing good events in our lives, an example would be our career prospects, how productive we will be on any particular day… fellow students, i’m sure you understand. The Optimism Bias also includes our tendency to underestimate our likelihood of experiencing bad events, for example, our chance of developing cancer or failing our next exam. In general, humans are more optimistic than realistic but for the most part we are oblivious to the fact.
A good example of a very popular optimism bias is marriage. In the western world, it is a well known fact that the average divorce rate is quite high at 40%. However, if you ask any newlywed couple they will say that there chance of divorce is a resounding 0%! This is the Optimism Bias at work. Another interesting aspect to the Optimism Bias is that we are optimistic about ourselves and our families – especially our kids (who will obviously grow up to be geniuses and be incredibly successful). However, we are much more pessimistic about the people around us: our neighbours, the person you sit next to in class, even the fate of your own country!
The Optimism Bias has been observed in many different countries, cultures and demographics. In Western and non-Western cultures, females and males, in children and also in the elderly. It is a very common and widespread phenomena.
I’m sure that at some point in your life you have thought something along the lines of ‘If I don’t think that it will work out well, then I won’t be disappointed.’ ‘It’ could be an exam grade, a job application or even a date! We tend to think that if we are not disappointed when good things don’t happen then, when they do happen we will be pleasantly surprised happy about it.
This way of thinking may seem like a good idea and a good way to protect yourself from disappointment. However, there are a couple of faults in the logic. Firstly, whatever happens with the outcome, if you succeed or fail, people who have high expectations always feel better about, about themselves and the situation because it all depends on how we interpret the situation. When people with high expectations fail at something they use fundamental attribution error – they blame the test or the situation, not themselves, so their self-esteem remains intact. On the other hand, when people with low expectations fail they blame themselves, their intelligence or skill and as a result, they feel worse about the situation.
Secondly, regardless of the outcome of a situation, the anticipation of something makes us happy. A good example of this is the fact that, in general, people prefer Friday to Sunday. Because although Friday is a work day and Sunday is a day of fun, on Friday you have the whole weekend ahead to look forward to, whereas on Sunday all you have to look forward to is a work week ahead of you. That anticipation of something good being on the way actually enhances a person’s well being. In fact, without the Optimism Bias people would all be slightly depressed. People with slight depression don’t have a bias when they look into the future and are more realistic than healthy, non depressed people. On the other end of the spectrum to Optimism Bias is the Pessimism Bias in which people expect the future to be worse than it ends up being. This is common among severely depressed individuals.
Thirdly, the way we expect the world to be changes the way we see it and acts as a self-fulling prophecy. As a result, lowering your expectation will not make you happy. Optimism is not only related to success, it leads to success in sports, politics and more importantly for the students reading… academic. If you think you will do well in an exam you will do better than if you thought you were going to do badly.
As seen above, there are many benefits of the Optimism Bias. However, with great power comes great responsibility and there are some pitfalls that need mentioning. Unrealistic optimism can lead to risky behaviour, financial collapse and faulty planning. Sharot gave an example from a firefighter. He said that “fatality investigations for firefighters often induce statement such as ‘we didn’t think the fire was going to do that’ even when all the information was available to make safe decisions.” Hopefully by explaining the Optimism Bias to people it can reduce it negative effects on people’s lives.
Knowledge is power. An example of when the knowledge of the negatives of the Optimism Bias was taken into account is when the British government acknowledged that it can make individuals more likely to underestimate the costs and durations of projects. As a result, they adjusted the 2012 Olympic budget.
The ultimate goal is to protect ourselves from the danger of the Optimism Bias whilst remain hopeful about the benefits of optimism. Luckily, becoming aware of optimism bias does not shatter the illusion. Just because you understand what is happening doesn’t mean that the rose tinted glasses have to come off!
By Olivia Hobden