Stocks are down, global warming is a fact, and your team hasn’t won a single game this season. But things can always get better. So you’re banking on the idea that the economy will avoid another recession, that we’ll solve global warming, and that your team will prevail at next week’s game. Now that’s optimism.
These overly optimistic assumptions of ours, however, can lead to disastrous miscalculations of the future, making us less likely to properly prepare — by getting health checkups, by opening a retirement savings, or even by something so simple as packing an umbrella.
It’s clear that some people are more optimistic about situations than others, but why? Do we base our logic on information that reinforces the outcome we desire? Or is it more complex? More internal in our processing? Researchers have the same questions, which is why optimism and how we process information to make judgments has become an increasingly popular field of investigation.
According to leading theories on learning, our expectations of future events should adjust accordingly when challenged with contradicting information — a theory more commonly referred to as reinforcement learning. But a growing body of evidence shows that information that should challenge our optimism doesn’t seem to faze us. For example, despite learning of previously unknown risk factors for diseases, individuals maintain the same optimistic perception of their susceptibility to illness. Even experts in their given field stayed partial to this thinking: Financial analysts expect improbably high profits, and family law attorneys underestimate the negative consequences of divorce — even the financial consequences.
A study published last year in Nature Neuroscience journal demonstrated how people tend to underestimate the likelihood of bad things happening in the future. Neuroscientist Tali Sharot, from the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging, set out to prove that people don’t take necessary action to protect themselves against hazards. She obtained data from participants using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), revealing which groups of neurons are firing at any given time. The fMRI then spits out color-coded images resembling Doppler radar maps, showing where brain activity is most active.
While under the fMRI, participants were asked to estimate their likelihood, in percentage terms, of experiencing imagined future events that could possibly occur in their everyday lives. These included developing Alzheimer’s disease, being robbed, breaking a bone, and contracting an illness, among other adverse events. Following their estimations, participants were told the actual probability of these events occurring. With this knowledge, they were then asked to re-estimate the likelihood of encountering these events. The goal: to measure how much these individuals would adjust their beliefs after learning of this new and factual information.
Results showed a disparity in how individuals updated their beliefs. Participants changed their estimations only when they were given information that bolstered optimistic expectations. Specifically, they were more likely to update their belief of an aversive event occurring when the average probability of experiencing a negative life event was lower than the participant’s own probability estimate. For example, during the first session, participants who estimated their likelihood of cancer at 40 percent, when the actual likelihood was 30 percent, adjusted their estimations accordingly and, during the second session, re-estimated this same likelihood to be 31 percent. On the contrary, participants who estimated their likelihood of cancer at 10 percent, when the actual likelihood was 30 percent, only adjusted their estimations during the second session by a minimal amount — to 14 percent.
With all of these participants insisting on thinking positively and only considering information that coincided with their rosy outlook, what does this say about how the brain is wired? Is thinking optimistically a neural reflex?
According to Sharot, when people learn, their neurons faithfully encode desirable information that can enhance optimism but often fail at incorporating unexpectedly undesirable information. When we hear a success story, our brains take note of the possibility that we, too, may have similar success. To the contrary, we rarely let aversive headlines affect us. Hearing that the odds of divorce are almost one in two tends not to make us think that our own marriages may be destined to fail.
In a related study from Nature Neuroscience, Sharot and neuroscientist Elizabeth Phelps recorded the brain activity of volunteers while they imagined future events in their everyday lives and compared those results with the data pattern of those same individuals while recalling past events. For this experiment, the events would cover a range of desirable and undesirable — the end of a romantic relationship, winning the lottery, and even getting a haircut or taking a plane ride. What Sharot and Phelps found was surprising. Once people started imagining the future, life events — even the most ordinary — seemed to take a dramatic turn for the better. All participants insisted on thinking positively when it came to what lay in store for them, and they noted having more vivid images of pleasurable events compared to negative ones.
Findings from this study suggest that directing our thoughts of the future toward the positive is a result of our frontal cortex communicating with subcortical regions deep in our brain. The frontal cortex, a large area behind the forehead, is the most evolved part of the brain and involved in many complex and higher functions such as judgment, decision-making, language, and goal-setting.
Two of these subcortical and critical regions of the brain include the amygdala, a small structure deep in the brain that is central to the processing of emotion, and the rostral anterior cingulate cortex (rACC), an area of the frontal that modulates emotion and motivation. The rACC acts like a traffic conductor, enhancing the flow of positive emotions and associations. The more optimistic a person is, the higher the activity in these regions are while imagining positive future events, and the stronger the connectivity between the two structures.
Phelps and Sharot note that these findings stay constant in the brains of healthy individuals. However, the opposite appears true for people suffering from depression. Individuals with severe and even mild depression tend to be pessimistically biased when imaging the future. Additionally, fMRI scans of these individuals showed decreased activity in their amygdala and the rACC. Unlike optimists, who tend to expect the future to be better than reality, people with depression tend to be expect things to be worse than they end up being. “In contrast, people with only mild depression are relatively unbiased when predicting future events,” explains Sharot. “They tend to rationally see the world as it is, in all of its flaws, and temper their optimism to fit.”
Research published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences challenged these results and asked subjects to rate their past, present, and anticipated future of life satisfaction. They found that people, in general, typically rate their lives at the present as more satisfying than the past, and their lives in the future are expected to be even more satisfying than the present. According to researchers, the difference between an optimist and a pessimist is that optimists simply see things as getting increasingly better and better over time; pessimists may assume that since today is bad, tomorrow, the immediate future, must be better.
If it’s in our best interest to prepare for the worst, why are our brains wired against this — to expect the best? Many speculate that optimism was selected by evolution precisely because, on balance, positive expectations enhance the odds of survival. We venture out, take risks and hope those risks result in successful outcomes. Can you imagine where we’d be if everyone were afraid to leave their homes? Furthermore, research still agrees that optimists live longer and are healthier due to less stress and anxiety.
So, the question begs, how do we keep the faith while at the same time avoiding life’s pitfalls? The key is to find a balance; to be aware of the odds of calamity and act to protect ourselves against unwanted outcomes. “The good news is that awareness rarely shatters the illusions,” says Sharot. “The glass still remains half full.” The bottom line is this: Stay optimistic, cover your bases, buy insurance, and pack an umbrella, because you never know.
Optimism: Nature vs. Nurture
The popular conception of optimism is that it is the blended outcome of both nature and nurture. In fact, UCLA researchers Shelley E. Taylor and Shimon Saphire-Bernstein have identified a particular gene — oxytocin receptor gene, or OXTR — that is linked to optimism, self-esteem, and mastery, the belief that one has control over one’s own life. Oxytocin is a hormone that increases in response to stress and is associated with empathy, bonding, and social recognition.
Taylor completed self-assessments of 326 participants, measuring optimism, self-esteem, and mastery. They also obtained DNA from participants’ saliva tests. Using UCLA’s genotyping center, researchers analyzed the DNA to find variations in the OXTR gene. As reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers found that people who had one or two copies of the OXTR gene with an A (adenine) allele at a particular location tended to have more negative measurements than those with two copies of the G (guanine) allele. People with an A allele were less optimistic, had lower self-esteem and felt less personal mastery than people with two G alleles. In addition, the A allele was linked to higher levels of depressive symptoms.
While this suggests that optimism is a direct result of our genetic makeup, it isn’t entirely the case. “This gene is one factor that influences psychological resources,” says Taylor. “But there is plenty of room for environmental factors as well.” Our past experiences and their outcomes do play a role in our optimistic expectations. Furthermore, there is the belief that optimism is the result of social interaction, that it is considered to be “socially contagious.” In a survey, focus-group participants identified contagious optimists as being radiators of good feelings, while pessimists were seen as being draining.