It's our delusional optimism, the obligatory Hope, that makes the world work, even when it's not working. Realists find it harder and harder to get out of bed—what's the point? More and more scientific research into human cognition is finding a perversive bias to see the glass as half-full even when the water's nearly gone. The latest finding came from University College London (UCL), as reported in the BBC's Brain 'rejects negative thoughts'.
A study, published in Nature Neuroscience, suggests the brain is very good at processing good news about the future.
However, in some people, anything negative is practically ignored - with them retaining a positive world view.
The authors said optimism did have important health benefits.
Scientists at University College London said about 80% of people were optimists, even if they would not label themselves as such.
The details of the study are not important, for it's as if these researchers had re-discovered the wheel. Writing this blog requires me to sort through lots of potential source material about the economy, energy, the environment and other subjects. Unwarranted optimism is everywhere you look, despite massive evidence to the contrary. In fact, I was preparing a post along these lines when the UCL study surfaced. Their press release offers up some additional insights.
In a study published today in Nature Neuroscience, researchers at UCL's Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging show that people who are very optimistic about the outcome of events tend to learn only from information that reinforces their rose-tinted view of the world. This is related to ‘faulty’ function of their frontal lobes.
People’s predictions of the future are often unrealistically optimistic. A problem that has puzzled scientists for decades is why human optimism is so pervasive, when reality continuously confronts us with information that challenges these biased beliefs.
“Seeing the glass as half full rather than half empty can be a positive thing – it can lower stress and anxiety and be good for our health and well-being,” explains Dr Tali Sharot. “But it can also mean that we are less likely to take precautionary action, such as practising safe sex or saving for retirement. So why don’t we learn from cautionary information?”
Safe sex? Saving for retirement? What about learning from cautionary information that shows humans are radically altering the climate, destroying the oceans, and running out of easily exploitable oil? And that's just a partial list. I had prepared a semi-facetious diagram of The Optimist's Brain before I heard about this UCL study. Here it is in slightly modified form. This processing "model" first arose during discussions with my psychotherapist in the mid-1990s. Before that in the late 1980s, I got my first clue about what really goes on in Daniel Goleman's book Vital Lies, Simple Truths, subtitled The Psychology of Self-Deception, which contains a chapter called Awareness Is Not A Necessary Stop.
The optimist's brain "rejects" negative (pessimistic) thoughts, meaning these thoughts never enter awareness (red circled area). A pessimistic or otherwise unwelcome input enters The Unconscious (blue circled area) directly—this is always the case. There are three possible outcomes: 1) the input is filtered and ejected (discarded); 2) the input is buried (remains) in the unconscious, where it might do all sorts of mischief later; or 3) the input passes right through as though it had never existed. This last might be called the "neutrino theory" because neutrino particles are so minute that they pass through "solid matter" without actually colliding with anything, even on the atomic level. Unfortunately, the elegant "neutrino theory" is too parsimonious. Under this view, how would an optimist be able to distinguish between pessimistic inputs which must be disregarded and positive inputs which are retained and reach awareness? Image source.
It is notable that the UCL researchers believe The Optimist's Brain suffers from "faulty" functioning in the frontal lobes. But if 80% of people are optimists, as the UCL scientists also claim—this would appear to be a a substantial underestimate—then the large majority of humans have "faulty" frontal lobes. If Nature gave us such frontal lobes—they must have had survival value a few million years ago and thereafter—it seems quite apparent they have little adaptive value in our troubled modern world.
The more parsimonious explanation is that Nature designed us to be optimists of the type described here, and nothing has changed, and it's the brains of the much smaller minority of realists pessimists that are out of kilter with respect to "normal" human cognition.
I've ridiculed optimism and persistent positive bias a number of times on DOTE. For example, see The Astounding World Of The Future, The Eternal Optimist, or Our Fantastic Future, featuring Arthur C. Clarke. But my "favorite" optimist is The Rational Optimist, Matt Ridley. In Ridley's (malfunctioning?) Big Brain, it surely must be a full-time job ignoring pessimistic (albeit realistic) inputs coming from everywhere everyday. In that spirit, I've included two short videos about "rational optimism" below.
Let's finish up with this remarkable statement from Dr. John Williams, Head of Neuroscience and Mental Health at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging—
“Being optimistic must clearly have some benefits, but is it always helpful? And why do some people have a less rosy outlook on life? Understanding how some people always manage to remain optimistic could provide useful insights into happens when our brains do not function properly.”
Hey, he said it, not me! Perhaps the headline should read—
Scientists Demonstrate Humans Routinely Ignore Reality!
How about that for Front Page News?