How does optimism bias shape our lives?
‘Stride forward with a firm, steady step knowing with a deep, certain inner knowing that you will reach every goal you set yourselves, that you will achieve every aim.'
What is optimism bias? Have you wondered why, given the depressing daily news about the state of the economy, climate change, the rate of divorce, the nightmare of modern day air travel, that we still get up in the morning and go about our daily lives; still choose to get married and flock to the airports to go on holiday despite past experiences of delays, queues and bad in-flight food! It turns out it is all down to something called the ‘optimism bias'. Research shows that regardless of age, background, where we live, 80% of the human race suffers from a severe case of optimism!!
It appears that as the only beings on the planet that are aware of their own death, we would need some kind of coping mechanism in order to not give up the will to live, and this is where the optimism bias comes in. It also enables us to plan for the future and has been vital for our survival.
Wired to look on the bright side of life This edition of Inspire is based on an article I read in the Observer Review on 1st January this year. It is adapted from the book ‘The Optimism Bias: Why We're Wired to Look On The Bright Side of Life' by the neuroscientist, Tali Sharot. Much of her and her colleagues' research work uses MRI scans so that they can record which parts of the brain are activated when people think about the past and the future. I won't go into the neuroscience here as there is not enough space, but it is fascinating as to what they are finding out about how our brain works, and how it impacts or is impacted on by our thoughts and feelings. See Wikipedia for more on the research into Optimism Bias, click here.
Will the future be better, worse or the same? Experiments have shown that people, when thinking about the future, tend to think it will be better than it could be, a journey will be easier, a project will come in on time, a marriage will work, despite the fact that nearly 50% of them fail. Whereas people who are mildly, but not clinically, depressed tend to have a more realistic view of the future, which is usually correct. However, the optimistic bias means that even if past experience shows us that something wasn't that great or didn't meet our expectations, we are still willing to go ahead and try it again.
‘For myself I am an optimist - it does not seem to be much use being anything else.'
Sir Winston Churchill
So it appears that even though Churchill suffered from the black dog of depression during his life, at other times he was an optimist.
What are the benefits of the optimism bias?
- It tends to be far more motivating to be optimistic than pessimistic. Whether we are going for a job interview, starting a relationship, attempting to get fit, planning a holiday, the optimism bias motivates us, and makes it easier to take the first step on our journey.
- Optimists get married and divorced, but there is a higher rate of re-marriage for people who are optimists.
- When it comes to learning pessimists are less disappointed when they make mistakes because that was what they were expecting. However, that doesn't guarantee that they learn from mistakes, as they were expecting them anyway and are not necessarily moved to take action to learn from them. Whilst research has shown that because optimists are more likely to have an emotional reaction when they make mistakes, because they were not expecting them, they are more likely to learn from them, as they have a bigger impact on them.
- One of the questions posed in the article was about Olympic athletes with an optimism bias as they can't all achieve gold. Tali Sharot says that this is true in any profession, we might believe we can all reach the top or discover some earth shattering discovery, but the reality is that only a few will. But the optimism bias keeps us moving forward, keeps us innovating and discovering.
What benefits have you experienced or seen in others?
‘Develop an attitude of gratitude, and give thanks for everything that happens to you, knowing that every step forward is a step toward achieving something bigger and better than your current situation.'
What are the downsides? If most of us experience Optimism Bias, what about those people who are overly optimistic, what can be the downsides to this? It is sometimes said that the financial crash of 2008 was due to people being overly optimistic about the future of the economy, the housing market, etc. But what can happen in our normal lives both in and outside of work?
- It can lead to unrealistic project plans, budgeting (perhaps this is what most builders and participants of Grand Designs experience!).
- May be unrealistic expectations on relationships both in and out of work.
- Unrealistic time management on a daily basis.
What downsides have you experienced or seen in others?
An optimistic pessimist - This is how I have described myself over the years, and I have written before about not being a born optimist, but even in the past when I was not as positive as I am nowadays, I still referred to myself as an optimistic pessimist. So somewhere within the doom and gloom there was a streak of positivity and having read this article it seems that I was born like everyone else with an optimistic bias even amongst somewhat pessimistic leanings.
‘There will be times in life when impossibility is felt, but then there are dreams - and dreams allow us possibility.'
Jeffrey David Lang
What if you are feeling depressed? It appears that for people who are mildly depressed, as distinct from clinically depressed, they actually have a more realistic view of the future and their predictions of what will happen are usually accurate. However, for those who are clinically depressed this is not true, and they experience more extreme pessimism, which stops them from taking any action.
‘Action is the antidote to despair.'
Some final words of inspiration I often come across quotes from Og Mandino and, having found these two, I thought I would find out more about him from Wikipedia:
After his military duties, Mandino discovered that few companies were hiring former bomber pilots. As a result, he became an insurance salesman. Traveling on the road and sitting in bars at night, Mandino became an alcoholic. He was unable to keep a job. As a result, Mandino's wife, Miriam "Mimi" Stidstone, together with their only child, left him. One wintry November morning in Cleveland, Mandino almost tried to commit suicide. But as he sorted through several books in a library, volumes of self-help, success and motivation books captured Mandino's attention. He read hundreds of books that dealt with success, a pastime that helped him alleviate his alcoholism. It was in a library in Concord, New Hampshire, where he found W. Clement Stone's classic, Success Through a Positive Mental Attitude, a book that changed Mandino for the better. Mandino eventually became a successful writer and speaker.
So let's end on some optimistic words from Og Mandino:
‘Search for the seed of good in every adversity. Master that principle and you will own a precious shield that will guard you well through all the darkest valleys you must traverse. Stars may be seen from the bottom of a deep well, when they cannot be discerned from the mountaintop. So will you learn things in adversity that you would never have discovered without trouble. There is always a seed of good. Find it and prosper.'
‘To do anything truly worth doing, I must not stand back shivering and thinking of the cold and danger, but jump in with gusto and scramble through as well as I can.'