Optimism - a helpful human bias

Pretty much everyone can tell you if they are a “glass is half full” or “glass is half empty” person. Do you tend to look on the bright side of things? Or pick out the negative aspects of most situations?

If you are an optimist, you’re not alone. Research has shown that optimism is a human trait we are pre-disposed to as a species.

Research in the past few years has taught us a lot about how optimism works in the human brain.

One brain imaging study completed in 2009 asked volunteers to imagine going on vacation to a variety of different locations and to rate them by how happy they thought they would be in each place. After the destinations were rated, volunteers were asked to pick between two spots they had given equal ratings and then to rate them again.

Interestingly, once a decision was made, people rated their selected vacation spot higher than they had before choosing it and they rated the discarded one lower.

On the brain images it showed that an area of the brain related to processing rewards and expectations changed during this decision making process. This reinforcement of our decisions likely helps us feel confident in the myriad choices we have to make every day. When our brain changes to affirm a choice, we do not go through life with un-ending buyers remorse – second guessing every choice.

Other studies have shown our brains tend to encode positive information that will enhance optimism but will not do the same for unexpectedly negative information – thus creating an optimism bias as the ‘good news’ sticks with us more permanently than the bad.

We don’t know why humans seem to be generally hard-wired for optimism, but optimists are known to be generally healthier and live longer than pessimists and some new research indicates this trait may be linked to some specific genes. For this reason, some believe there could be an evolutionary advantage to the trait.

Obviously, there are some positives to looking on the bright side – but there are also some dangerous risks associated with putting on the blinders to potentially negative ramifications of some decisions.

In an article on the topic by author Barbara Ehrenreich, she points out how the optimistic mantra of modern capitalism has led many to financial ruin with sub-prime mortgages and belief that the soaring stock market and housing boom would never end. And of course the recent recession is another example of how unflinching optimism could backfire. She posited that we need to balance our optimism with sober reality to protect ourselves.

Simply understanding that we are biased toward optimism – that our brains will automatically affirm our choices and have us expect hopeful things -- can help us to keep a watchful eye out for hidden potential pitfalls.

As helpful as it can be, positive thinking alone cannot solve all our problems, heal all that ails us or protect us from every negative consequence in this life. Still, it can certainly help keep us smiling and hopeful through adversity.


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