Sunday, 29 May 2011

Optimism: we are hardwired to ignore defeat

Hope springs eternal as the old saying goes and we humans seem to be forever optimistic that things are going to work out. No matter what the hardship, no matter what the failure, we are perpetually coming back with the sunny idea that next time things will be different. Albert Einstein supposedly said, "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." Are we nuts?

In the May 28, 2011 edition of Time Magazine, Tali Sharot, a research fellow at University College London's Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging discusses our proclivity for optimism as a probable survival mechanism hardwired into our brains by eons of evolution. While it may seem that an overly sunny view of the future may be unrealistic or sometimes just plain delusional - okay, stupid - Ms. Sharot suggests that our brains deliberately push aside negative thoughts in favour of the good ones as a means of surviving, of finding the will to carry on. If not, what? We roll over and die?

Despite the news about violent conflicts, high unemployment, tornadoes and floods, we may collectively express pessimism but individually, when thinking about our own futures, we seem to remain resilient. The author mentions a 2007 survey which found that 70% thought families were less successful than their in their parents' day yet 76% of the respondents were optimistic about the future of their own family. Go figure.

Overly positive assumptions can lead to disastrous miscalculations — make us less likely to get health checkups, apply sunscreen or open a savings account, and more likely to bet the farm on a bad investment. But the bias also protects and inspires us: it keeps us moving forward rather than to the nearest high-rise ledge. Without optimism, our ancestors might never have ventured far from their tribes and we might all be cave dwellers, still huddled together and dreaming of light and heat.

To make progress, we need to be able to imagine alternative realities — better ones — and we need to believe that we can achieve them. Such faith helps motivate us to pursue our goals. Optimists in general work longer hours and tend to earn 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.

Ajit Varki, a biologist and the associate dean for physician-scientist training, co-director of the Glycobiology Research and Training Center at the University of California, San Diego supports the argument that optimism is part of evolution. Being able to imagine the future but do so with the idea of success, allowed our ancestors to survive. Sharot uses the expression "irrational optimism" which seems amusing in light of our own mortality but points out that ignoring our own mortality permits us to continue without seeing that it all may be fruitless. Varki and others concur with this notion.

Sharot, along with neuroscientist Elizabeth Phelps, conducted tests about optimism using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Volunteers were asked to imagine various possible future events, some desirable (a great date or winning a large sum of money), and some were undesirable (losing a wallet, ending a romantic relationship) while the researchers recorded their brain activity.

We observed [enhanced activity ] in two critical regions of the brain: the amygdala, a small structure deep in the brain that is central to the processing of emotion, and the rostral anterior cingulate cortex (rACC), an area of the frontal cortex that modulates emotion and motivation. The rACC acts like a traffic conductor, enhancing the flow of positive emotions and associations. The more optimistic a person was, the higher the activity in these regions was while imagining positive future events (relative to negative ones) and the stronger the connectivity between the two structures.

Sharot goes on to explain how our emotions can shape the future. Pessimistic people, like those who may be clinically depressed, have negative expectations and may very well not do what is necessary to avoid a negative outcome. Conversely, those who are optimistic will do what's necessary or even more in order to succeed. Indeed, being optimistic or pessimistic can literally shape our futures.

Sharot explains another test where volunteers were primed with certain keywords before performing some cognitive tasks once again using MRIs scans to see what's happening in the brain. To induce success, the researchers spoke with college students using words like smart, intelligent and clever before the test and to induce expectations of failure, they used words like stupid and ignorant. The students performed better if primed with success words but the brain scans revealed some interesting data. If primed for success and a student made a mistake, the brain activity shot up indicating that the brain was trying to learn from the mistake so as to correct the error in the future. Those primed for failure showed little or no brain activity when making a mistake. In other words, they were not learning from their mistakes; they were being self-defeating in their outlook. To succeed, to overcome the odds, to learn from one's mistakes, the brain must be active. This connects back to the idea that being optimistic is a survival mechanism. Being primed for success means more brain activity when faced with a mistake as the brain wants to learn to do better next time.

Ms. Sharot talks about optimism as being a means of transforming situations from bad to good, of finding the silver lining in the storm clouds. As an example, she talks about a friend who is at Heathrow Airport waiting to get on a plane to Austria for a skiing holiday. His plane has been delayed for three hours already, because of snowstorms at his destination. "I guess this is both a good and bad thing," he says. Waiting at the airport is not pleasant, but he quickly concludes that snow today means better skiing conditions tomorrow. His brain works to match the unexpected misfortune of being stuck at the airport to its eager anticipation of a fun getaway.

She goes on to discuss an experiment where volunteers are asked to choose between various bad scenarios, like would you rather have a broken leg or a broken arm. Invariably, given some time to think about it, the volunteer would find some way of painting the problem in a good light. "With a broken leg, I will be able to lie in bed watching TV, guilt-free." Optimism means we are going to succeed no matter what.

Final Word
Ms. Sharot ends by saying that this tendency towards optimism is both good and bad. Good in the sense it helps us to continue. Bad in that we tend to overlook the obvious signals of failure. She amusingly points out that we can hear a success story like Mark Zuckerberg's of Facebook and imagine ourselves being rich one day and yet, upon hearing that the odds of divorce are almost 1 in 2, we can't imagine our own marriages ever failing.

The research seems to indicate that we all have this innate ability to see the sunny side of the street. Even in the most hopeless of situations, we still find hope. To quote Charlie Sheen, "Defeat is not an option." It would seem that optimism is a survival mechanism. It gives us the courage to carry on... or the hope that marriage number two is going to work.


Time Magazine - May 28/2011
The Optimism Bias by Tali Sharot
[Adapted from The Optimism Bias, by Tali Sharot. Sharot is a research fellow at University College London's Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging]
We like to think of ourselves as rational creatures. We watch our backs, weigh the odds, pack an umbrella. But both neuroscience and social science suggest that we are more optimistic than realistic. On average, we expect things to turn out better than they wind up being. People hugely 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).

Wikipedia: Optimism Bias
Optimism bias is the demonstrated systematic tendency for people to be overly optimistic about the outcome of planned actions. This includes over-estimating the likelihood of positive events and under-estimating the likelihood of negative events. Along with the illusion of control and illusory superiority, it is one of the positive illusions to which people are generally susceptible. Excessive optimism can result in cost overruns, benefit shortfalls, and delays when plans are implemented or expensive projects are built. In extreme cases these can result in defeats in military conflicts, ultimate failure of a project or economic bubbles such as market crashes.

The Optimism Bias: A Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brain by Tali Sharot
From one of the most innovative neuroscientists at work today, an investigation into the bias toward optimism that exists on a neural level in our brains and plays a major part in determining how we live our lives.

Psychologists have long been aware that most people maintain an often irrationally positive outlook on life. In fact, optimism may be crucial to our existence. Tali Sharot’s experiments, research, and findings in cognitive science have contributed to an increased understanding of the biological basis of optimism. In this fascinating exploration, she takes an in-depth, clarifying look at how the brain generates hope and what happens when it fails; how the brains of optimists and pessimists differ; why we are terrible at predicting what will make us happy; how emotions strengthen our ability to recollect; how anticipation and dread affect us; and how our optimistic illusions affect our financial, professional, and emotional decisions.

With its cutting-edge science and its wide-ranging and accessible narrative, The Optimism Bias provides us with startling new insight into the workings of the brain.

Nature, Vol.460 - Aug 6/2009
Human uniqueness and the denial of death by Ajit Varki
The late Danny Brower, a geneticist from the University of Arizona, suggested ... that with full selfawareness and inter-subjectivity would also come awareness of death and mortality. Far from being useful, the resulting overwhelming fear would be a dead-end evolutionary barrier, curbing activities and cognitive functions necessary for survival and reproductive fitness. ... In his view, the only way these properties could become positively selected was if they emerged simultaneously with neural mechanisms for denying mortality. ... Brower’s contrarian view could ... steer discussions of other uniquely human ‘universals’, such as the ability to hold false beliefs, existential angst, theories of afterlife, religiosity, severity of grieving, importance of death rituals, risktaking behaviour, panic attacks, suicide and martyrdom. ... we should be looking for the mechanisms (or loss of mechanisms) that allow us to delude ourselves and others about reality, even while realizing that both we and others are capable of such delusions and false beliefs.

Wikipedia: Ajit Varki
Ajit Varki is a physician-scientist who is currently distinguished professor of medicine and cellular and molecular medicine, associate dean for physician-scientist training, co-director of the Glycobiology Research and Training Center at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), and co-director of the UCSD/Salk Center for Academic Research and Training in Anthropogeny (CARTA). He is also executive editor of the textbook Essentials of Glycobiology and Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras. He currently serves on the National Chimpanzee Observatory Working Group and is a specialist advisor to the Human Gene Nomenclature Committee.

New York University, Press Release - Oct 24/2007
Study Reveals How the Brain Generates the Human Tendancy for Optimism
A neural network that may generate the human tendency to be optimistic has been identified by researchers at New York University. As humans, we expect to live longer and be more successful than average, and we underestimate our likelihood of getting a divorce or having cancer. The results, reported in the most recent issue of Nature, link the optimism bias to the same brain regions that show irregularities in depression.

On second marriages: "The triumph of hope over experience."
- Samuel Johnson, from Boswell's Life of Johnson


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