Thursday, January 05, 2012

Unrealistic optimism

There was a fascinating paper in a recent issue of Nature Neuroscience that investigates why unrealistic optimism is so pervasive.  We all think our teams can win, we are above average drivers, this lottery ticket will be the one.  The same is true with important judgments like whether we will pass the test, get the job, or have enough money to retire.  Over the past decades, many possible reasons for this optimism have been suggested:

  • Perhaps because we like good news, we pay more attention to it. 
  • Perhaps because we like good news, we think about it more and therefore process it more deeply.
  • Perhaps good things happen more often, so we are more familiar with them. 
  • Perhaps good news is more exciting, so it increases brain activity during memory storage.
As you probably can guess from the name of the journal, these researchers hooked their participants up to fMRI machines to scan their brains and find out what causes the optimism.  They statistically controlled for all of the other possible solutions so they could be sure.  And here is what they found.

Positive information is processed in several parts of the brain, primarily the frontal cortex and the left inferior prefrontal gyrus.  Negative information only activates the left inferior prefrontal gyrus.  So what happens is that when you see positive information, your mental model gets stronger based on the activation of several brain areas, but when you see an equal amount of negative evidence, your model changes based on just one area so it changes less.  It’s like that old Lil Rascals episode with Alfalfa and Darla where Alfalfa is dividing up the candy.  One for you, one for me.  Two for you, One-two for me.  Three for you, One-two-three for me . . .

This is dangerous because optimism decreases the chance that we will take steps to protect ourselves.  We don’t always wear our seatbelt, we don’t always save enough for a rainy day, we don’t go to the doctor because “it’s probably nothing.”  Optimistic people have less stress and live longer.  But only as long as we don’t kill ourselves first.  So it is important to understand what to do about this. 

When you get information that supports your pre-existing ideas, take it with a grain of salt.  And if you get contradictory information, try to take it more seriously.  This is the opposite of what comes naturally, but could make your life much better.

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