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Brain Pickings: Does Optimism Make Us Irrational?

Submitted by on March 9, 2013 – 7:02 PM 2 Comments

optimism-lbogIf I were to ask you to estimate the chances of a person getting cancer, getting a divorce or dying due to cigarette smoking, your answer would on average fall at the half-way chance mark, or at best, a little less than that. However, if I asked you to estimate your own chances of facing the aforementioned perils of life in comparison to other people, your response would be significantly different. In particular, you would feel that your odds of getting a divorce or cancer are lesser compared to any other person.

 

 

This is an example of the optimism bias according to neuroscientist Tali Sharot, which causes people to believe that their own chances of experiencing a negative event are less than those of others. In short, the optimism bias is the over-prediction of positive outcomes. It is as if our brains are sub-consciously processing information in light of the future, without enabling us to be aware whether this information processing is realistic or not.

 

 

What is the evidence for this optimism bias with respect to the underlying neural substrates causing it? Well, a series of experiments using neuro-scientific methods tell us how the brain responds to scenarios that involve optimism. Using Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), Sharaot and colleagues identified the brain regions that were selectively responding to positive information.

 

 

One such area was the left inferior frontal gyrus which was ‘activated’ when participants in the study viewed and processed positive outcomes. This brain region was involved in such scenarios in people with high optimism, mild optimism and even in those who were slightly pessimistic. On the contrary, the right inferior frontal gyrus was involved in processing bad news.

 

 

However, the right inferior frontal gyrus according to the researchers was not doing ‘a very good job’. It was found that the more optimistic a person was, the less likely this region responded to negative events/information. This implies that if the brain is not functioning well enough to integrate negative information, we would in theory be more optimistic than usual.

 

 

Taking the above findings a step further, Sharot and her colleagues using Trans-cranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) tried to alter people’s optimism bias by altering brain activity. By interfering with the right inferior frontal gyrus (the brain region that processed bad news), the researchers observed that people’s bias increased, whereas interfering with the left inferior frontal gyrus resulted in people’s optimism bias reducing and in some cases disappearing.

 

 

So what are the real-life implications of the optimism bias? Certainly there are many and I would leave you to decide that for your own (discussion is always welcomed); some food for thought. However, I would like to mention an implication that strikes me as interesting. The media, government and marketing agencies and even educational institutions can harness the optimism bias in people to add value into their lives.

 

 

Instead of telling them what not to do, they could tell them the positive side of the story (since we are more optimistic than realistic). Telling a smoker about the number of people who stopped their addiction successfully might just turn out to be more liberating and influential than showing them pictures of tumors and cancers on cigarette packets. Likewise, teachers could motivate their students to perform better by highlighting the significance of education, for example.

 

 

That said, the optimism bias has a deep negative side to it (and hence the optimistic irrational brain). It makes people less likely to visit a doctor, encourages them to get involved in risky behaviours and addiction and might even cause a huge economic and business turmoil for those who are involved with the stakes of financial resources.

 

 

So does having the optimism bias help us? According to research in literature and philosophy, it does. I am not quite sure. Again this is something that I would like you to ponder upon. However, the optimism bias tells us one thing: Our brains are not only wired to live in the past or present, but are also tuned in to predict and live in and by the future. So who are you? An ‘optimistic irrationalist’ or an ‘irrational optimistic’?

 

 

 

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  • Ahmed Khan

    Wow man! Such impressive research keep it up!

  • Osman

    An interesting article. I wonder if you could clarify a point for me. You mention that optimism bias is where you believe ones own chances of experiencing a negative event are less than those of others and you cite ‘getting cancer’ as an example. As a non-smoker this is something I believe to be true, but isn’t this down backed up with medical statistics rather than optimism?