Tag Archives: Shelley E. Taylor

Useful Fiction: Optimism Bias of Positive Illusions

Tali Sharot

Tali Sharot

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.

Shelley Taylor

Shelley Taylor

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.

The Optimism BiasSharot’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.

Ellen Langer

Ellen Langer

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.

Elizabeth Phelps

Elizabeth Phelps

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.

Lauren Alloy

Lauren Alloy

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.

Lyn Abramson

Lyn Abramson

“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.”

Robert Rosenthal

Robert Rosenthal

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?

Related Post:
Oxytocin Receptor Gene’s Link to Optimism, Self-Esteem, Coping with Stress

Sharot’s TED Talk

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Oxytocin Receptor Gene’s Link to Optimism, Self-Esteem, Coping with Stress

Shelley Taylor

Shelley Taylor

Shelley E. Taylor, distinguished professor at UCLA identified the oxytocin receptor gene (OXTR) link to optimism, self-esteem and “mastery” — the belief that one has control over one’s own life.
These three elements are required to manage stress and depression.

Reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), she notes that oxytocin, a hormone that increases in response to stress, is associated with good social skills such as empathy and social behavior, especially under stress.

In one location on the oxytocin receptor gene, two variants occur:

•    “A” (adenine) variant, associated with increased sensitivity to stress, poorer social skills, depressive symptoms and worse mental health outcomes

•    “G” (guanine) variant, associated with optimism, self-esteem and mastery.

This effect was demonstrated in 326 volunteers, who completed measured by self-assessments and saliva samples for DNA analysis.
Those with two “A” nucleotides or one “A” and one “G” at this oxytocin receptor gene location, showed lower levels of optimism, self-esteem and mastery and higher levels of depressive symptoms than people with two “G” nucleotides,

Taylor notes that genes may predict behavior, but do not determine it because many environmental factors and other genes interact with oxytocin receptor gene variants in stress, coping, and emotional behaviors.

These findings suggest people who train themselves to appraise situations more optimistically, to see themselves more worthy, capable and competent, are able to improve ability to cope with stressful events.

Taylor’s book, The Tending Instinct: Women, Men, and the Biology of Relationships, outlines the importance of cultivating socially nurturing environments to mitigate genetic vulnerabilities.

She notes that “a mother’s tending can completely eliminate the potential effects of a gene; a risk for a disease can fail to materialize with nurturing, and a genetic propensity may lead to one outcome for one person and the opposite for another, based on the tending they received.”

Her most influential work demonstrated a “self-enhancement bias” in her book, Positive Illusions: Creative Self-Deception and the Healthy Mind ,
she explained that “most people regard themselves, their circumstances, and the future as considerably more positive than is objectively likely…. These illusions are not merely characteristic of human thought; they appear actually to be adaptive, promoting rather than undermining good mental health.”

In contrast, Rick Hanson argues that a negative bias is more adaptive to survival than a positive bias.
He notes that negative stimuli produce more neural activity than do equally intense positive ones, and are perceived more easily and quickly: “The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones.”

His book, Just One Thing: Developing a Buddha Brain One Simple Practice at a Time, recommends meditation to tame automatic negative thoughts.

-*Where have you seen examples of “the tending instinct,” positive illusions and negative bias in the workplace?

See related posts on Hormones and Emotional Expression:
•    Oxytocin, Testoterone: Oxytocin Increases Empathic Work Relationships, Workplace Trust, Generosity
•    Cortisol, Testosterone: Thoughts Change Bodies, Bodies Change Minds, Roles Shape Hormones: “Faking Until It’s Real”

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Blog: – Kathryn Welds | Curated Research and Commentary

©Kathryn Welds