Dr. Sharot has published a book on her findings entitled, The Optimism Bias: A Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brain. Interestingly, she believes there are negative as well as positive consequences of the Optimism Bias – while it may make you a healthy, high-achiever it can sometimes lead you to be foolhardy in the life choices you make. Humans Invent spoke to Dr. Sharot to learn more.
I’m a cognitive neuroscientist so that means I look at psychological phenomenon and I try to explain them by looking at the brain. I use brain imaging and other techniques as well.
Why do you think people have the Optimism Bias?
It is hard to say and we can never really know whether it is nature or nurture. The reason that we think it is geared in that way is because we see it not only in human beings but in other animals such as birds and mice. We see it in different cultures and we see it in kids. In fact kids have an even larger bias in processing information than is found in older adults.
It has been shown that optimists tend to live longer and are healthier
There are a couple of advantages. Firstly there is an advantage to our physical health because it has been shown that optimists tend to live longer and are healthier. Optimists are more likely to survive therefore through evolution it would have been an advantage to have. The reason it has a positive effect on our health is because if you have positive expectations it reduces stress and anxiety and that has a positive effect on one’s health. It also acts as a motivator. It motivates you to act in ways that are good for ones health. They are more likely to follow the doctor’s orders, to eat healthily, get the right vitamins and exercise. So they actually put more effort into being healthy.
Patients who are optimistic try harder to do what they can to get better whereas pessimistic patients are more likely to give up so they are more likely to get worse. Optimism also has a positive effect in reaching your goals. If you have positive expectations you are more likely to try and put effort into what it is you want to achieve. Any kind of innovation is something you first have in your mind and then you have the confidence to believe it is possible.
A large proportion of them tend to be depressed individuals, so mildly depressed individuals tend not to have an optimistic bias when they are looking to the future and severely depressed individuals tend to have a pessimistic bias where they tend to expect the world to be worse than it actually ends up being.
It has also been shown that optimism was one of the core reasons for the financial downfalls of 2008
Can the Optimistic Bias be a bad thing?
There are dangers to optimism. For example, if you think everything is going to be okay then you might not go to medical screenings or you might not wear a helmet in a dangerous work environment. So you don’t take the actions you need to protect yourself. It has also been shown that optimism was one of the core reasons for the financial downfalls of 2008 so if the optimism of many individuals comes together it can cause this great big bubble and that is what happened in the financial market. There are disadvantages and the idea is that if you are aware of them then you can come up with ideas to protect yourself from those but then keep with the optimism that you can benefit from.
Optimism is about your own future because it is only themselves that people care about unfortunately. It is well known that people are mainly motivated for their own survival and their own good. Of course if you have motivation to help other people and the closer the people are to you genetically then it is more likely you are to be optimistic about them.