Sunday, November 1, 2015

Do humans have an inbuilt potential for realistic optimism?

In order to think clearly about this question it is helpful to remember that the opposite of optimism is pessimism. Realism is not the opposite of optimism.
My understanding is that realists seek to base their estimates of the probability of future events on evidence of one kind or another. Optimists tend to over-estimate the probability of positive future events. Realistic optimists are aware of their optimistic tendencies when they make predictions and important decisions.

The idea that humans have an inbuilt tendency to be optimistic is supported by neurological research discussed by Tali Sharot, a neuroscientist, in her book The Optimism Bias. Brain imaging studies show that the brain structures that are engaged when people recollect the past are also called upon when they think about the future. The author’s research suggests that when people think about their futures there is normally also a tendency for activation of neural pathways associated with optimism (the rACC and the amygdala). Healthy people expect the future to be slightly better than it ends up, and thus tend to be less accurate when predicting future events than are people with mild depression. (The line of argument in the book is summarised in an extract published in The Guardian.)

Tali Sharot suggests that the optimism bias has evolved because it encourages people to try to transform their predictions into reality:
“The brain is organized in a way that enables optimistic beliefs to change the way we view and interact with the world around us, making optimism a self-fulfilling prophecy”.

Sharot recognizes that optimism can be a health and wealth hazard when it causes people to make risky choices. She suggests:
“if we are aware of the bias, we would should be able to remain optimistic – while at the same time being able to promote action that will guard us from the pitfalls of unrealistic optimism”.

One point that occurred to me while reading The Optimism Bias is that this bias may often compensate for other common biases such as risk aversion and loss aversion, which tend to pull in the opposite direction. (I doubt whether I am the first person to think of this. It occurred to me that the logical place to look for a discussion would be Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, but I couldn’t find it even though his chapters discussing the optimism bias and loss aversion are in close proximity.) The research by Robb Rutledge, which I discussed in “What is the secret of happiness?” seems relevant. If we have chosen a particular strategy because of its potential to yield high average returns over the longer term, it is often better to stick with it even if outcomes are disappointing in the short term. Under those circumstances, realistic optimism would help us to reject the temptation to avoid further disappointment by lowering our expectations and adopting a low-risk/low-return strategy.

A point that should be emphasised is that optimistic expectations can only become self-fulfilling if they induce people to change their behaviour in ways that make them self-fulfilling. There is support for that view in recent research by Elizabeth Tenny, Jennifer Logg and Don Moore. This research suggests that the benefits of optimism lie mainly in encouraging people to increase their effort in order to improve performance.

Similar findings were obtained in research by Gigi Foster and Paul Frijters (abstract here) comparing the expectations of Australian students about the grades they were likely to achieve with the grades they actually achieved. Individuals with high self-esteem were found to over-predict their outcomes and to put in more effort than fellow-students with otherwise similar characteristics.

Humans do seem to have an inbuilt potential for realistic optimism that enables them to set goals that are not far beyond their reach and then inspires them to work hard to attain those goals. However, potential is like a glass half full. The processes that function autonomously within us do not necessarily ensure that we remain optimistic or that our optimism is tempered by realism. In order to attain and maintain realistic optimism we need to become sufficiently self-aware and equanimous to avoid the pitfalls of pessimism and unrealistic optimism.

I am having second thoughts about the extent to which an optimism bias should be considered normal. The short allele variant of the 5-HTTLPR, which is associated with stronger attentional bias toward negative stimuli, is apparently present in almost half of the population of countries for which data is available. Most of us view optimism as desirable, but many of us have to exert some effort in order to maintain an optimistic outlook.

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