Perhaps you think that what you’ve experienced in the past – the positive and the negative – is intensively shaping your expectations of what will happen to you tomorrow, next week or 10 years from now. But actually, although life experiences can teach us all kinds of things, we don’t get that much better in predicting what the future will bring. Why? Because our brains are biased towards optimism. As a consequence, we all belief that the future will likely be much better than the past and present. For example, we underrate our chances of getting divorced, being in a car accident, or suffering from cancer. This phenomenon is called the optimism bias and neuroscientist Tali Sharot has written a book about it.
To what extent is optimism essential for our well being?
“We now know that underestimating the obstacles life has in store lowers stress and anxiety, leading to better health and well being – this is one reason why optimists recover faster from illnesses and live longer. Moreover, believing that a goal is attainable motivates us to execute actions that will help us get closer to our dreams. Optimism pushes us to take chances – attempt a new job, a new relationship. It also acts as a self fulfilling prophecy, as believing a goal is attainable makes it more likely to be.”
Under which circumstances can optimism lead to negative outcomes and why?
“Overly-positive assumptions can lead to disastrous miscalculations — make us less likely to get health checkups, apply sunscreen or open a saving account. The optimism bias is thought to be a leading factor of the 2008 global economic collapse and can induce risky behavior.”
Although the brain seems to be wired for hope and optimism, many people are currently suffering from depression. Do you have an explanation for this?
“The optimism bias exists in 80% of the population. However the rest are either pessimistically biased or have no bias. People with severe depression tend to be pessimistically biased; they expect things to be worse than they end up being. People with mild depression are relatively accurate when predicting future events. They see the world as it is.”
You argue that we are dreadful in predicting what will make us happy. How come? Don’t we learn from the past what improves our quality of life?
“There are a number of reasons for this. Let me give you one – the power of relativity. Whether we are satisfied with our salary, dinner order, cell phone carrier, and health services, depends to a large extent on how much our friends are making, whether our dinner partner got a more appetizing plate, how much our colleague is paying for his monthly mobile plan, and whether our family doctor is more competent than the other practitioners. So someone training as a lawyer might think that the salary they will earn when they qualify will make them very happy. But when they qualify and get that first job they make comparisons with other qualified (more experienced and higher earning) lawyers.”
Tali Sharot received her Ph.D in psychology and neuroscience from New York University and has a B.A in economics and psychology. She is a faculty member of the Department of Cognitive, Perceptual, and Brain Sciences at University College London and a Wellcome Trust Fellow. Her scholarly research focuses on how emotion, motivation and social factors influence our expectations, decisions and memories. Her papers on the neuroscience of optimism, emotional memories and cognitive dissonance have been published in top scientific journals including Nature, Science, Nature Neuroscience and Psychological Science.