For all the stock we put into human rationality, our brains seem to be hardwired for chronic delusion about what the future holds. Optimism may have been essential for human survival—and it’s probably necessary for our mental health. But it likely also makes us prone to miscalculations—both insignificant and potentially calamitous.
“Both neuroscience and social science suggest that we are more optimistic than realistic,” writes Tali Sharot in Time Magazine. Sharot is the author of The Optimism Bias (2011) and a research fellow at University College London’s Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging.
Optimism bias is the belief (or sense, feeling, attitude) that the future will be much better than the past. According to Sharot, it abides in every race, region, and socioeconomic bracket. And while we can collectively become pessimistic about things like the economy or where our country is headed, it seems that we harbor extremely resilient private optimism about our personal future—our own lives, for example and even our kids’ successes.
What makes us hardwired for hope (and even blind hope)? It may well be a survival trait that’s made humans what they are.
But, I wonder if it could also be our downfall. (As a sage cowboy/businessman friend of my grandfather’s use to say: sometimes the thing that’ll make you is the thing that’ll break you.)
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Without optimism we’d be sunk. The bias protects and inspires us; it keeps us moving forward rather than to the nearest high-rise ledge, writes Sharot. “To make progress, we need to be able to imagine alternative realities—better ones—and we need to believe that we can achieve them.”
Optimism is a necessary part of our ability to imagine the future—not only does this allow us, as a species, to plan ahead and endure hard work in anticipation of a future reward, optimism and hope actually function, in part by reducing stress, to maintain our physical and mental health. (It is possible, writes Sharot, that in the absence of a neural mechanism that generates unrealistic optimism, it is possible all humans would be mildly depressed). It also helps us from constantly second guessing our decisions (the caudate nucleus, a cluster of nerve cells that is part of the striatum actually sends signals that reinforce the positives of the choices we have made.) But the downsides of irrational optimism can range from unhealthy to downright disastrous—from keeping us from wearing sunscreen or putting money away for retirement, to betting the farm on risky investments.
Sharot started out studying human memory. Realizing that the brain reconstructs (or selectively revises) memory in part to help shape and process future scenarios, he was surprised to find that our brains are also actively constructing the future. “Once people started imagining the future, even the most banal life events seemed to take a dramatic turn for the better,” he writes. It’s not that we can’t imagine dire future scenarios, but research shows that most of us spend less time mulling over negative outcomes than we do over positive ones. And his research shows that imagining positive future events is richer and more vivid to us than imagining unwanted events. Directing our thoughts of the future toward the positive, Sharot and Elizabeth Phelps (also a prominent neuroscientist) found, is a result of our frontal cortex’s communication with subcortical regions deep in our brain—the amygdala (central to the processing of emotion) and the rostral anterior cingulated cortex (rACC—part of the brain that enhances the flow of positive emotions and associations.)
Perhaps most fascinating, Sharot describes how our brains maintain a rosy outlook even in the face of negative or challenging information. By scanning the brains of people as they process both positive and negative information about the future, neuroscientists have learned that we actually “sort” good news from bad, allowing mostly the good to stick and allowing a lot of the bad to fall by the wayside (that’s my layman’s translation).
All of this is fascinating on an individual level. Sharot dwells mostly in the realm of the personal (why we get married again even after a divorce, how we look at loss as a “learning experience”) but, it also seems that there are serious implications for the community and species levels. Take climate change, for one example. Do our rose-colored glasses actually make it difficult for us to “see” or process the idea of a future that is not as pleasant as the present or the past? And are we just a little bit too good at unconsciously “sorting” information out if it clashes with our optimistic vision of a better future? Likely yes—at least to a degree. And climate nerds like myself or card carrying pessimists are not immune. Surely this plays a role in our ability to act collectively and individually when it comes to solutions.
But Sharot remains, um…optimistic! He says we can start to overcome the brain’s default to delusion by identifying the tendency. “Once we are made aware of our optimistic illusions,” he writes, “we can protect ourselves.” Obviously there’s a fine balance to strike—between hopefulness and hard truths about the road ahead.