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Leave it to Science: Should We Be Optimistic?

Leave it to Science: Should We Be Optimistic?

If ignorance is bliss, then optimism must be euphoria. Thanks to a mechanism called the optimism bias, humans are pretty much incapable of applying basic risk statistics to their own lives. We know smoking causes cancer, but we don’t expect it to happen to us. We find a lump on our body  and we tell ourselves it’s probably nothing. 

Although the term optimism bias was first used in the 1980’s, psychologist and Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman was most likely the one who made it part of general vocabulary. In his 2011 book “Thinking, Fast and Slow”, Kahneman notes that “people tend to be overly optimistic about their relative standing on any activity in which they do moderately well.” The optimism bias generates the illusion of control: the idea that we are in control of our lives. Bad things only happen to others.

You can see where this bright outlook on life can cause trouble. Wearing seatbelts? Not necessary.  Opening a savings account? Maybe later. Being overly optimistic in life puts us at risk. In addition, people who show cheerful, optimistic personality traits during childhood, have a shorter life expectancy than their more serious counter parts. On the other hand, optimists are more psychologically resilient, have stronger immune systems, and live longer on average than more reality-based opposites. So who’s better off in life; the optimist or the pessimist?  And who’s reality comes closest to the truth?

No rose-colored glasses
According to the “depressive realism” proposition, people who suffer from (moderate) depression actually have a more accurate perception of reality.  They are less affected by the illusion of control and therefore better capable of estimating their chances in life. In other words, people with depression are not pessimists, they are realists.

When you tend to attribute positive events to yourself and negative events to others, that is called a self-serving bias. This is the case for most people. When you believe you are responsible for negative events rather than positives ones, you show a non self-serving bias – something that is often seen in people who suffer from depression.

Although the validity ofdepressive realism has been debated for years,  a recent study suggests the proposition can be supported with neurological evidence. A team of neuroscientists conducted an experiment in which two groups – one consisting of fifteen depressed participants, the other of fifteen healthy participants- were presented with 80 sentences describing 40 positive (e.g., “A friend sent you a postcard.”) and 40 negative (e.g., “A friend ignored you.”) social events. The participants had to imagine these events happening to them, and then select the most likely cause: self (internal), or another person/ situation (external).

At the same time, their brain activity was measured. For those who were depressed, the frontal-temporal brain regions were activated when they judged a sentence in a self-serving way. The healthy group on the other hand, showed increased activity in the same region in response to non self-serving judgments. “The results suggest that healthy people use attributional decisions in order to regulate their emotions,” explains lead-author Eva-Maria Seidel. “They distance themselves from negative emotions by attributing negative events to others instead of themselves.” Depressed patients, on the other hand, do not show this effect.

So humans, apparently, have developed a way to better cope with negative emotions. Their rose-colored glasses cause them to view the world just a little better than it actually is. But without them we would never get anything done, says neuroscientist and author of “The Optimism Bias” Tali Sharot: “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.”

But what happens when we become too optimistic?  Studies demonstrate that, for example, chief financial officers “were grossly overconfident about their ability to forecast the market”, Kahneman writes. Researchers at Duke University collected 11,600 CFO forecasts and matched them to market outcomes.  They found that the correlation was less than zero, meaning the more confident a CFO was, the less likely it was for his prediction to become reality.

Still, it’s not just our tendency to believe bad things won’t happen to us that causes us to be at risk. We also like to think we are better than average; the so-called “illusory superiority effect”.

That goes for pretty much anything. We are funnier than average, better at grammar and also morally superior. An interesting 2011 study suggests that we are less likely to be ripped-off as well: we think others would pay more for an item, any item, than we would. Not necessary the best outlook when you, let’s say, would like to start a business. “The documented bias appears to hold for all goods,” writes author Shane Frederick. “It was found not just for DVDs, but also for chocolate truffles, books, teddy bears, sporting goods, iPhones, artwork, and even hypothetical or imaginary goods such as a trip to the moon or a magic pill that confers the ability to speak French.”

Believing we’re A: better at all things and B: less likely to be at risk, is an unfortunate combination. Imagine how it can influence our driving, for example. We do not cause any accidents, nor do we get caught in them. A 1981 study by researcher Ola Svenson confirms this. She surveyed 161 students in Sweden and the United States, asking them to compare their driving safety and skill to the other people in the experiment. For driving skill, 93% of the US sample and 69% of the Swedish sample put themselves in the top 50% (above the median). For safety, 88% of the US group and 77% of the Swedish sample put themselves in the top 50%.

Stockdale paradox
So there you have it, both perspectives come with pro’s and cons. The optimist will die because he didn’t get that lump checked. The pessimist will die of a stroke before he can even get that lump checked.  Is there really no way out of this impasse? Yes there is, in my opinion, and it was offered by admiral Jim Stockdale. This United States military officer was held captive for eight years during the Vietnam War. Having been imprisoned for that long, tortured numerous times, not knowing if he would ever make it out, Stockdale could have thrown in the towel. But he kept believing that in the end, he would prevail. He did not, however (and here come’s the paradox) let himself fall into the trap of optimism. When he was asked who didn’t make it out of Vietnam, Stockdale replied:

“Oh, that’s easy- the optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.”

It’s an important lesson that can also be applied in situations that are less horrendous than the one Stockdale found himself in. Being optimistic is necessary in order to get anything done in life. Without the belief we can accomplish anything, we will not even try to do so. Still, holding on to the belief that everything will be OK in the future does not mean that we should ignore the things that are shitty today. That, I think, is truly being realistic.

Self-serving bias – the tendency to claim more responsibility for successes than failures. It may also manifest itself as a tendency of people to evaluate ambiguous information in a way that is beneficial to their interests (see also group-serving bias).
Pessimism bias – the tendency for some people, especially those suffering from depression, to overestimate the likelihood of negative things happening to them.
Illusion of control – the tendency to overestimate one’s degree of influence over other external events.
Illusory superiority – overestimating one’s desirable qualities, and underestimating undesirable qualities, relative to other people. (Also known as “LakeWobegon effect,” “better-than-average effect,” or “superiority bias”).

Collins, J. C. (2001). Good to great: Why some companies make the leap–and others don’t. New York, NY: HarperBusiness.

DeJoy DM (1989). The optimism bias and traffic accident risk perception. Accident; analysis and prevention, 21 (4), 333-40 PMID: 2765077

Svenson, Ola (1981). “Are we all less risky and more skillful than our fellow drivers?” Acta Psychologica DOI: 10.1016/0001-6918(81)90005-6

Seidel EM, Satterthwaite TD, Eickhoff SB, Schneider F, Gur RC, Wolf DH, Habel U, & Derntl B (2012). Neural correlates of depressive realism–an fMRI study on causal attribution in depression. Journal of affective disorders, 138 (3), 268-76 PMID: 22377511

Anouk Vleugels

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