2015: Why Optimism?

A motivational speaker (it wasn’t me) pours a glass of water, pauses and asks, So, is this glass half full or half empty?

  • It’s half empty, says the pessimist
  • It’s half full, says the optimist
  • It’s twice as big as it needs to be, says the database programmer.

We quite like to think of ourselves as rational creatures. If you’re within the 32 percent of the population that made a resolution for 2014, are you still going strong? Nearly a year on, you’ve been faced with the temptation, the test of willpower, and likely some teasing from loved ones. So now you’ve only got a few days left to complete your resolution…. piece of cake…

The belief that the future will be much better than the past and present is known as the optimism bias. It abides in every race, region and socioeconomic bracket. Our survival and wellness require a balance between optimism and pessimism. Undue pessimism makes life miserable; however, excessive optimism can lead to dangerously risky behaviours.
Both neuroscience and social science suggest that we are more optimistic than realistic. Psychologists have documented human optimism for decades. People massively underestimate their chances of getting divorced, losing their job or being diagnosed with cancer; expect their children to be extraordinarily gifted; envision themselves achieving more than their peers and overestimate their likely life span, sometimes by 20 years or more. Economists at Duke University found that optimists even save more. And although they are not less likely to divorce, they are more likely to remarry – an act that is, as Samuel Johnson wrote, the triumph of hope over experience. Informing people about their statistical likelihood of experiencing negative events, such as divorce, is surprisingly ineffective at altering their optimistic predictions, and highlighting previously unknown risk factors for diseases fails to make more realistic perceptions of medical vulnerability.

Neuroscientists are looking deeper into our non-rational nature [see Sharot T, Riccardi AM, Raio CM, & Phelps EA (2007). Neural mechanisms mediating optimism bias. Nature, 450 (7166), 102-5 PMID: 17960136]. The typical experiment consists of having participants gamble for money on computerised versions of slot machines. At the same time, participants’ brains are monitored in functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanners. In one study, 18 participants were asked to recall past events as well as imagine future ones based upon on-screen cues (such as winning the jackpot). They were then asked to describe their thoughts and report how strong, emotional, and positive each thought was, and whether or not it was experienced first-hand. A standard questionnaire also evaluated how optimistic they are generally. The results clearly demonstrated a positive (optimistic) bias. The participants rated upcoming events more positively than even happy past events, things they had actually experienced.

The research also suggests that optimism and pessimism are differentially associated with the two cerebral hemispheres. High self-esteem, a cheerful attitude that tends to look at the positive aspects of a given situation, as well as an optimistic belief in a bright future are associated with physiological activity in the left-hemisphere (LH). In contrast, a gloomy viewpoint, an inclination to focus on the negative part and exaggerate its significance, low self-esteem as well as a pessimistic view on what the future holds are interlinked with neurophysiological processes in the right-hemisphere (RH).

Later in the experiment the participants were instructed to daydream. Imagine winning the lottery and spending the money. As happy future thoughts flooded their minds, two structures were identified to be more strongly activated compared to negative images: the rostral anterior cingulated cortex (RACC) and the right amygdala. Additionally, the more strongly the RACC was activated, the higher the participants’ score on the optimism questionnaire. Even more importantly, the RACC may work hand-in-hand with our emotional centre, the amygdala, to actually downplay negative emotional responses. This, in turn, may be adaptive; a glass half-full optimism may not only make us happier, but also give us a drive to achieve high-stakes goals. Though there are inherent risks in over optimism, simply accepting negative predictions will impair our lives.

The good news is that awareness rarely shatters the illusion. When your nucleus accumbens tells you how delicious that big slice of chocolate cake will be, remember how hard your RACC worked this summer to ensure that you lost some weight. It is possible to strike a balance; people believe they will stay healthy, but still get medical insurance anyway. They can be certain the sun will shine, but still grab an umbrella on our way out, just in case. So keep up with that healthy dose of optimism, as you prepare to take on the last few days of 2014 equipped with your new resolutions.

Actually, just eat the cake. Chocolate cake is delicious.

Be Amazing Every Day