Tali Sharot of University College London investigated people’s tendency toward unsubstantiated optimism after she observed this bias in her neuropsychological experiments on memory processes of envisioning future events and consequences.
She, like Shelley Taylor of UCLA decades before, argued that this bias was an evolutionary adaptation that enabled people to survive under difficult conditions. Sharot added to Taylor’s work by suggesting that a majority of people demonstrate the optimism bias by a margin of 5:3.3.
Sharot’s The Optimism Bias: A Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brain
compares optimism bias to other perceptual illusions, such as sometimes-fatal spatial disorientation among airplane pilots and other frequently-cited optical illusions like “Young Lady or Old Woman”, “Vase or Two Profiles”, and Thatcher illusion.
An example of optimism bias is the well-documented “superiority illusion”, that most people rate their skills, knowledge, and tendencies as above average in a variety of dimensions.
Another example was identified in 1975 by Ellen Langer of Harvard, who suggested that a pervasive “illusion of control” causes most people to overestimate their ability to control events, even those over which they have no influence.
This cognitive bias has been suggested as prevalent among “problem gamblers” and those who believe in paranormal phenomena.
Sharot and Elizabeth Phelps of New York University extended Taylor’s early work with neuropsychological research, and reported that the brain’s frontal cortex communication with the posterior hippocampus enables people to envision future possibilities and events.
They observed amygdala and the rostral anterior cingulate cortex activity when people demonstrate the optimism bias and noted that malfunctions in these brain areas are associated with a bias toward pessimism and related depression.
These findings were foreshadowed by Lauren Alloy of Temple University and Lyn Abramson of University of Wisconsin in their 1979 study, which found that people with depression are better able to predict future events accurately, whereas people not burdened with depression have inaccurately optimistic predictions.
“Depressive realism,” just as optimism bias can actually influence or alter future outcomes, as demonstrated in Robert Rosenthal’s classic Pygmalion in the Classroom study and “self-fulfilling prophecy,” leading to the idea that “perception is reality.”
Though inaccurate, optimism bias has positive effects. It has been observed to:
- Reduce perceived stress
- Improve physical health
- Increase life span
- Increase likelihood of people following recommended health practices like exercising, following low-fat diets, taking vitamins.
Sharot suggested that increasing awareness of optimism bias can help people enjoy the benefits of this positive illusion while watching for pitfalls of unrealistic optimism.
-*How do you capitalize on the optimism bias and mitigate its drawbacks?