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The Optimism Bias - We Have Hope Embedded in Our Brains

Updated on July 15, 2012

The optimism bias has allowed us to take chances

Taken by Lewis Hine, edited by Durova [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Taken by Lewis Hine, edited by Durova [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons | Source

Inborn Optimism is Part of Us

When trying to convince people to quit smoking, why is it necessary to raise the cost of cigarettes and to ban smoking in public places? Smokers have already been told repeatedly about the greatly increased risks of lung cancer, emphysema and cardiovascular disease. Shouldn't knowing the risks of smoking be enough?

Why do overweight people not lose weight until they develop heart disease, high blood pressure or diabetes, even though they now know that the risks of developing one or more of those medical conditions are high?

Why do people buy lottery tickets when the odds of winning are millions to one?

Why, when people think they've got a good idea, do they risk everything on it rather than taking a more measured pace, risking only what they can afford to risk?

Those questions and others like them have plagued health professionals, insurance companies and law enforcement officials for decades. For thousands of years questions about taking risks have also plagued both fellow competitors who have lost to risk takers and widows and orphans who've been left behind.

Now we know an important part of this phenomenon. Most humans have an inborn attitude that's been labeled "the optimism bias".

It seems that about 80% of us are biased in favor of our own futures. We consistently both over-estimate the good things that will happen to us, and under-estimate the bad things that will happen to us.

This optimism bias remains in place even after we've been given the hard facts about the chances of our success or the risks of our behavior.

If our present situation is not good, we think that our future will be brighter than our present, even if we have nothing on which to base that belief - and our future may very well become better, because this belief will spur us on to make it so.

When someone believes that he or she has more control over a situation, the optimism bias is raised even higher, and it results in the person thinking that the risk is lower. For example, if a person is driving the car, that person thinks the risk of an accident is lower than if the same person is a passenger in the same car. Even as a passenger, the person thinks that the risk if an accident is generally lower than for the general public.

Optimism Bias and Increasing Optimism in the Brain

Is the optimism bias a good or a bad trait?

The optimism bias operates in two directions. We think we have higher than normal chances of something good happening, such as winning a lottery ticket. And we think we have less than normal risk of something bad happening, such as developing a disease or having an accident that could be caused by our risky behavior.

Getting past this optimism bias is a very real obstacle when behavior change is needed. That's why raising prices on risky habits, making laws and developing fines are important tools for behavior change that helps the public good. The combination of informing people of the risks and making it inconvenient and expensive to engage in the behavior work more effectively than simply informing people alone.

Optimism bias doesn't just operate with risky behavior. If you ask newlyweds what their chances of divorce are, most of them will say that they are zero. Even after you remind them that 40% of marriages end in divorce, they still believe that the divorces will happen to other couples. Even divorce lawyers have this bias about their own marriages.

Miscalculating our risk can be catastrophic, as any weekly death rate will tell you. However, overall the optimism bias is very good for both the individual and the group. For the individual, simply having a bias toward optimism, especially during hard times, reduces daily anxiety and stress, which keeps us healthier. We already know that the optimism bias motivates us.

As groups, over thousands of years we have migrated from one continent to all but Antarctica because of the optimism bias. We have written books and developed medicines. We've tried extraordinary things in all walks of life, and we have succeeded the the point that we have increased the average human lifespan in just the last 100 years. We have improved our ease of living far beyond the days when we had to haul water from a stream, go to the bathroom in the woods or send runners to communicate long distances.

This bias about our individual lives works even when we have no particular hope for our whole society. We may feel very pessimistic about our society as a whole, but we feel optimistic about our own future. We have more hope on a personal level. We think of our possibilities as good and our future as possibly looking up.

In the brain, this optimism bias has been located via functional brain scans. It's in the rostral anterior cingulate cortex. If this area is not operating quite right, a person can be slightly depressed. A slightly depressed person is pretty realistic about the future. If this area of the brain is operating very badly, and a person is depressed, that person will actually be pessimistic - have a pessimism bias - about the future.

The optimism bias, like any other area of the brain that is involved with memory and learning, can be improved. It can be affected both by medication and by cognitive conditioning. In experiments, it has also been temporarily shut down by passing mild magnetic waves over the skull in that spot.

I've barely touched the surface of this fascinating concept, and my focus has been more on our health. However, there is much, much more to it. If you'd like to know more about its many facets and how they operate in our daily lives, watch the video below. Tali Sharot has been studying the optimism bias for years, and presents her information in an entertaining and interesting manner. She's also written a wonderful book about the topic, which is available through the link above to Amazon.

Tali Sharot provides a very entertaining TED talk on the optimism bias


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