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Home » All, Book Announcement, Book Review, Optimism

The Optimism Bias – A Book Review

By on June 21, 2011 – 10:26 am  16 Comments

Louisa Jewell, MAPP '09, is president of Positive Matters and a consultant, facilitator and speaker who works with organizations around the world to develop positive leaders and nurture productive teams. Listen to Louisa's podcasts on positive matters, collected from a radio show she hosted. Full bio.

Louisa's PositivePsychologyNews.com articles are here.



 “The science of optimism, once scorned as an intellectually suspect province of pep rallies and smiley faces, is opening a new window on the workings of human consciousness. What it shows could fuel a revolution in psychology, as the field comes to grips with accumulating evidence that our brains aren’t just stamped by the past. They are constantly being shaped by the future.” ~ Tali Sharot

Dr. Tali Sharot, research fellow at University College London’s Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging, just released her book, The Optimism Bias; A Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brain.  The optimism bias is the inclination to overestimate the likelihood of encountering positive events in the future and to underestimate the likelihood of experiencing negative events. The book is a neuroscientist’s exploration of this bias in our brains, an exploration that contributes to an increased understanding of the biological basis of optimism.

Our Memories Are Not Like Video-tapes

In some of her early studies, Sharot asked participants to recall past memories. She was surprised by the inaccuracy of their recollections. Using brain imaging technology, she found that the same brain structures that are engaged when we recollect the past are called upon when we think of the future. Recollection, therefore, is a reconstructive process, not a video-like rerun of past events. It is thus susceptible to inaccuracy.

Sharot recorded people’s brain activity when they imagined mundane future events like going to the hairdresser or getting an ID card. What she unexpectedly discovered was that most people fashioned wonderful scenarios around these seemingly routine future events. In further studies, she found that people expected more positive than negative or neutral events to take place in the future. Plus they expected the positive events to take place sooner. This made Sharot wonder whether the human tendency for optimism is a consequence of the architecture of our brains.

Hard-Wired for Optimism

   Hard-Wired for Optimism

We are Hard-Wired for Optimism

While many are convinced that optimism was invented by Americans, she was determined to conduct her studies in the UK and Israel as well as the USA, all with similar results. According to Sharot’s research in optimism and memory, we are hard-wired for optimism. She speculates that optimism served an evolutionary purpose because positive expectations of the future enhanced the probability of survival. She claims that optimism can be destructive if we cannot realistically predict what will happen in the future. For example, law students who were well briefed on the statistics that 50% of all marriages end in divorce were still quite convinced their upcoming marriages would last “until death do us part.”

But she also claims that optimism is functional in the sense that it defends us from feeling hopeless about the future, thus reducing stress and anxiety and enhancing motivation to act and be productive. There are parts of our brain that evolved to give us the capacity to envision ourselves in the future. They enable us to plan ahead, saving food and money, which can ensure our future security. Both prospective thinking and optimism work hand in hand to propel people forward.

   Pygmalion Effect

How do expectations change reality?

Sharot asserts that health and progress are more likely when our brains over-predict future happiness and success. “The tendency for positive predictions to create positive outcomes (whether subjective or objective) is rooted in fundamental rules governing the way the mind perceives, interprets and alters the work it encounters.” The mind has a tendency to try to transform predictions into reality because people’s behavior is influenced by their own subjective perceptions of reality. Thus the self-fulfilling prophecy becomes a cause of the event rather than just a forecast of the future.

Depression is also a Cognitive Bias

People with a higher likelihood for depression tend to be negatively biased, interpreting everyday events as more negative more often. According to Sharot, antidepressants do not directly enhance people’s moods. They actually change the cognitive bias. This is why it takes time for antidepressants to change perceptions, attention, and memory and thereby alter someone’s emotional state.

Dr. Sharot cites research that suggests that a gene coding for serotonin function affects a person’s likelihood of suffering depression – but only after experiencing a very stressful life event like death of a loved one, unemployment, or divorce. Perhaps this genetic predisposition makes a person less resistant to stressors, similar to a weakened immune system. Perhaps it also heightens physiological response to stressful situations. If so, it may well be that resilience training and practices that redirect cognitive bias toward the positive, can, in fact, protect against depression.

Finally…

The Optimism Bias is full of fascinating discussions of studies in neuroscience. It outlines the neuroscience behind how the brain generates hope and what happens when it fails; how the brains of optimists and pessimists differ; why we are terrible at predicting what will make us happy; how emotions strengthen our ability to recollect; how anticipation and dread affect us; and how our optimistic illusions influence our decisions.

Once I started reading The Optimism Bias, I could not put it down. Sharot describes her research through captivating stories while making the complex neuroscience easy to understand. For those of you interested in understanding the biological processes that affect our outlooks on the world, this is the book for you.


References:

Sharot, Tali (2011). The Optimism Bias: A Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brain. Pantheon Books Inc./Random House.


Images

Brain By dierk schaefer

Gérôme, Pygmalion et Galatée, 1890 By leo.jeje

16 Comments »

  • Terrific review, Louisa! I’m ready to order my copy. What would you say were your top three take-aways in terms of practical applications?

  • Louisa Jewell says:

    Thank you Sherri,
    That is an excellent question. First, I would say that the book does alert us to the fact that our brains can provide a distorted view of reality without us realizing it. So how do you reap the benefits of optimism (improved health etc.) while still maintaining a realistic view of the world?

    Secondly, she describes what happens in our brains that cause us to like our choices more after we have chosen them. If you can recall Dan Gilbert’s TEDTalk, on the subject (http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_gilbert_asks_why_are_we_happy.html ) she explains the biology behind this that is fascinating. In fact, she explains the biology behind many ways in which we approach our lives. Very interesting.

    Third; Her claim that some of us are genetically pre-disposed to depression is not new, but she describes in detail the genetics and how it works. For some people, learning how to change cognitive bias might be more important than others who don’t have this genetic marker. This encourages me to continue my work in resilience and well-being training.

    Louisa

  • Dan Bowling says:

    Thanks for the article and the follow-up thoughts, Louisa. These are complex issues to work through. I don’t think any of us believes the world suffers from too much optimism and well-being, but there is considerable attention these days to the downsides of optimism (some take it to the extreme; i.e., BEhrenreich). I just finished reading “Beyond Right and Wrong,” a book about legal decision making by a colleague Randy Kiser, and he offers considerable evidence showing that a majority of attorneys make less than optimal decisions in negotiations because of excessive optimism. However, attorneys as a population tend to be highly pessimistic (as well as depressed, etc.). Perhaps we are wired to be optimistic about short-term decisions (I can skate on that lake that just froze over, no problem), but less so about our life circumstances (although Sharot suggests otherwise)?

  • wawan says:

    Amazing…,thanks for this aricle.

  • Dave Shearon says:

    Thanks, Louisa! I have the book; this el move it up on my list.

    Dan, do you think lawyers may be a slightly asked population when it comes to optimism. And, is predicting outcomes of a complex but limited process best described as optimism? We already have expectational optimism ( Carver & Schier) and attributional optimism (Seligman) -would this be a third form?

  • Dan Bowling says:

    Closer to the former, I think. Or we can look to different fields like behavioral economics or decision sciences to describe optimism.

    Also, as you and I have discussed, Marty was possibly (gasp!) wrong in his oft-cited UVA study on lawyers and pessimism.

  • Hi Dan and Dave,
    Tali Sharot does speak to expectational optimism as Dave mentions. Lawyers are overly optimistic in predicting outcomes even in the face of damning information, because they feel they will overcome. She mentions one study where lawyers who practiced divorce law where informed that the divorce rate is 50% and yet they still predicted their divorce rate would be 0.This is a recurring phenomenon, although she did mention that depressed people tended to change their predictions once they were told derogatory information. There is something biological where humans say “I know that’s the stat for the rest of the population, but I’m special. It won’t happen to me.” Perhaps is ego playing a role here?
    Louisa

  • Sara Oliveri says:

    Louisa,

    I’m glad you mentioned Ego – Ego and Optimism absolutely go hand in hand. I’m surprised we don’t acknowledge it more frequently.

    Dan & Dave – I’m curious – what do you think Marty was wrong about in his UVA lawyer study on pessimism? How pessimistic lawyers are? Or how that pessimism gets applied and hurts/helps them?

  • Louisa,
    Great review. I’m ordering the book today. As I read Dave and Dan’s observations and your comments I was reminded about something I’ve encountered recently. Working with professionals I’ve seen that optimism and pessimism can be domain specific. A professional can be optimistic in their work, and pessimistic in their daily life. The variety of explanatory styles depending on the situation seems to suggest a more nuanced than global approach when it comes to optimism/pessimism. Does Sharot comment on the variability of optimistic/pessimistic explanatory styles in various situations?
    Thanks again for the review.
    Scott

  • Dan Bowling says:

    Scott hits on something very important, the seeming variability of optimism and pessimism among domains (which really are pretty blunt tools to use when describing or coaching someone; perhaps that is why we are struggling a bit with this).

  • Louisa Jewell says:

    Hi Sara,
    I think for some people ego does play a big part. So it becomes harder to descern. Are lawyers compelled to show optimism, because if they show otherwise, they are basically saying they don’t believe in their own abilities to overcome obstacles? Now this kind of optimism is not necessarily bad if it compels lawyers to work hard and do their best. It is over-optimism with no related action that can be harmful I think.

    This makes me think about my days when I sold large scale computers at IBM. I was always optimistic about outcomes and worked extremely hard to win every competitive bid I was in. Losing was not an option – and I felt tremendous pressure from my team to bring in the wins. When you really believe you can win it does push you to higher levels. Marty’s insurance salesman example is a good one.

    Louisa

  • Dan Bowling says:

    Sara, we are not sure Marty was “wrong,” but as even he acknowledges more research is needed before we can make such sweeping declarations about a profession (unfortunately, given Marty’s prominence, this finding has been repeated so much as to become a truism). Basically, the study found that those at the top of the class academically at one elite law school were shown to have a pessimistic explanatory style. This is far too narrow a definition of “success” in law, in our opinion.

  • Louisa Jewell says:

    Hi Scott,
    No, in fact, Sharot does not explore the idea that optimism can be domain specific. It’s interesting because she feels that other than the work done by Marty many decades ago, there is not that much scientific research exploring optimism. Do you know of any researchers who are exploring domain specific optimism?

    Also, I wonder if a group of people in fact encourages optimism? For example, I feel more optimistic with a team behind me, but when it’s just me on my own, my explanatory style changes. Perhaps confidence plays a role here too.

    I interviewed Sharot on my radio show on Friday. I’ll send you the link once I post it to my website tonight.
    Thanks Scott.
    Louisa

  • Louisa Jewell says:

    Hi Dan,
    Thank you for that clarification. Sharot also concludes more research is needed. Perhaps it is more about situational pessimism and optimism that allows for overall success. It is the proper use of both when required.

    More and more researchers in positive psychology are recognizing the need to explore both positive and negative emotions in the equation for both well-being and success.
    Louisa

  • Great review Louisa (and another book to add to my reading list.) I just read “The Rational Optimist” by Matt Ridley which sounds like it is somewhat contradictory to this. He comments on how at every age throughout history people always seem to be speculating that things are getting worse when in fact they are getting better and better. Today it is concerns about global warming, tension in the middle east, economic meltdowns etc. He shows historically how people worried that every new phase of technology were going to destroy life as we knew it (he gives an example saying that once horse drawn carriages became popular for transportation that towns were going to be buried in horse manure.

    He argues that these things tend to work themselves out and they never are as bad as people make them out to be. People underestimate our ability to develop new solutions to confront the new problems.

    But I think this gets at Louisa’s point about Ego and Scott’s point about domain specific optimism. Maybe people tend to be pessimistic about the future on a societal scale while believing that individually everything will work out for them.

    This also seems to be highly culturally specific. For example, Western cultures seem to practice death denial–people don’t like to think about or talk about their own death. Some Eastern cultures believe that focusing on your death is an important part of life.

  • Swedesd says:

    Nice discussion!

    Hardwired optimism could be seen as another blow for the rational agent idea in economics. A reflection on what it could imply in today’s economy that is driven partly by credit taking can be found at http://swedesd.wordpress.com

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