Your stocks are down, global warming’s 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 in Nature Neuroscience 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.