May 15, 2011

"How is it that people remain optimistic even though information challenging those predictions is abundantly available?"

"It turns out it is not commencement speeches or self-help books that make us hopeful. Recently, with the development of non-invasive brain imaging techniques, we have gathered evidence that suggests our brains are hard-wired to be unrealistically optimistic. When we learn what the future may hold, our neurons efficiently encode unexpectedly good information, but fail to incorporate information that is unexpectedly bad."

(NYT link.)

56 comments:

Alex said...

Cognitive dissonance is a survival mechanism.

Triangle Man said...

I find this story heartening.

Ann Althouse said...

This is way "hope and change" was a good campaign concept.

cubanbob said...

Of all of God's creatures, only humans have the amazing ability to delude themselves. To see and hear what they want to see and hear and not what their lying eyes and ears tell them.

chuck said...

I was thinking along somewhat the same lines this morning. The observation was that even very intelligent people habitually rationalize foolish decisions and opinions in the most astonishing way. So... taking the sociobiology approach, one wonders what the evolutionary value of such a tendency is? Does intelligence require a dram of delusion to help the medicine go down?

Sixty Grit said...

That settles it, Obama in '12!

RuyDiaz said...

Does this mean that only the depressed have a firm grasp on reality?

Irene said...

This is why Suzanne Somers sells books.

rhhardin said...

For instance a bicycle quick release axle skewer is enough to hold a broken axle together so well that you don't even bother replacing it, I think, just taking yesterday's example.

Bender said...

For many years, scientists were puzzled by the existence of this unshakable optimism. It did not make sense.

Of course it doesn't make sense to "scientists," but it makes perfect sense to any Jew or Christian. And since we are a Judeo-Christian nation, in the sense that we are, and our history has been, overwhelmingly influenced by Judeo-Christian thought, including that of hope, it is no wonder that the people of this nation would retain some of that message of hope.

While the scientists keep trying to build their houses on sand, the rest of us have build our houses on rock, thereby giving us the assurance that it will withstand whatever happens to us. Even worldly death ultimately does not matter, even then, if we stay in that house built on rock, we will be OK.

Julius said...

But in an era of unemployment, financial meltdowns, political unrest and natural disasters, is this message of optimism helpful?

That's a nonsense negativity assumption! Now is the best time ever to be alive-- we live in the richest society the world has ever seen, we can communicate with anyone in the world instantaneously, we have the freedom to go where we want and do what we want and to associate with whom we want. There is easily-grasped opportunity in whatever direction a person might choose.

We now know that underestimating the obstacles life has in store lowers stress and anxiety, leading to better health and well-being.

But this does not equal happiness, not if you consider happiness to be a deep and ever-present sense of contentment.

The Danes, among whom I spend a good portion of every year, are surveyed to be the happiest people on the planet. Yet their general outlook would be considered pessimistic by American standards, and realistic by Danish standards.

The hard-wired unrealistic optimism discussed in the linked piece might be an encumbrance, something that we need to get over in order to live more fulfilling lives.

Bender said...

Meanwhile, your typical atheistic/agnostic existentialist is generally mired in doubt and misery until they are so overwhelmed with their personal nihilism, that they end up putting a gun in their mouths and pulling the trigger.

A lot of so-called scientists are such existentialists.

windbag said...

Read THE definitive book on investing, "Reminiscences of a Stock Operator" by Edwin Lefevre. In it, he sums up the psychological torture investors must confront and overcome to become successful: greed and hope sit on each shoulder, whispering in your ear. Knowing which to heed is the trick.

Ayn Rand and Mr. Spock aside, we are emotional beings and often act on what we WANT to be instead of what we PERCEIVE to be. Hitchens and Dawkins aside, we are sinful beings and deceive ourselves into believing that what we want IS what we perceive.

rhhardin said...

Such people in medicine become ophthalmologists.

MarkG said...

All of the pessimists I know have a screw loose.

RuyDiaz said...

All of the pessimists I know have a screw loose.

The self-delusion screw?

Jose_K said...

You cant survive if you are depressed or frustrated. So the grappes were green,and you go on without crying for the spilled milk or past time was always better or simply you forget

Jose_K said...

BTW: were is the news, we studied in high school circa 1980, the minds mechanisms of defense. So its not breaking news

Rose said...

Right now, we live better than the kings of old. We have hot and cold running water at our fingertips. We have light at the touch of a button. Kings would have sacrificed their kingdoms in pursuit of such riches.

We have antibiotics, supermarkets full of food and all manner of goods, as mentioned above we have the ability to communicate across the world in real time.

We are the richest people that have ever lived.

edutcher said...

What Rose said.

I think in the old days, things were so ghastly, you had to believe things would get better or the race would have died out long ago.

Ann Althouse said...

This is way "hope and change" was a good campaign concept.

The Bible works that way, too.

traditionalguy said...

From a Christian point of view, faith from hearing God's word is a substance from which real blessings are made. Hope aims faith at a target, and also protects our minds from depression. The TV Ads for prescription anti-depression drugs portray very risky drugs that are sold as the last chance for those in a pit of heavy Depression that have been failed to be helped by all other drugs and treatments. I'll take Christian hope over depression any day.

Ralph L said...

Gotta love endorphins.

PatCA said...

All those statistics relate to a collective; most people consider themselves individuals and base their happiness/unhappiness on that rubric.

The world has always been dicey. How do you think the Toltecs felt seeing the Aztecs, with their charming rituals of human sacrifice, coming over the hill?

As Rose said, we live in a near paradise. Enjoy it. Or sit in a Paris cafe, smoking your Gauloise, in a fog of ennui. Hey, even despair today sounds kind of fun.

MisterBuddwing said...

"The optimist proclaims that we live in the best of all possible worlds; and the pessimist fears this is true." _
James Branch Cabell.

I'll spare you the boring details, but I view my own life as being incredibly lucky in some ways, and decidedly unlucky in others. On balance, I think I'm pretty well off. Delusional, am I?

WV: togypr

Henry said...

Bender has it right. Even for the non-religious, optimism is its own reward.

I'm not sure that the juxtaposition of optimism and risk-assessment presented by Tari Sharot is at all correct. Optimism is an emotional attitude. Risk assessment is an intellectual skill. Two different things entirely.

caplight said...

I would like to know if that holds up across cultures. If some cultures are more optimistic than can be accounted for neurologically. It's probably like a lot of traits, it's part biology part culture and conditioning.

Peter Hoh said...

This is why people buy lottery tickets.

Gabriel Hanna said...

While the scientists keep trying to build their houses on sand, the rest of us have build our houses on rock,

Says Bender in a message he inscribed on a clay tablet which was hardened in the sun, copied by scribes, and sent around the world on horseback, presumably--fallible science built on a house of sand never got anything right and couldn't possibly have had anything to do with it.

Nothing that pointy-headed perfessers dreamed up in ivory towers improved anyone's life, or contributed in any way to our understanding of the universe.

David said...

Any moment now, you might get laid.

Why worry.

David said...

For example, I keep hoping and expecting that the "Shocking Meat Video" will disappear from Althouse Blog.

Eric said...

From where I sit it seems like optimism has a clear evolutionary benefit. You can only prepare for the future if you think you'll be there. The people who don't make it have wasted time and energy, but from an evolutionary perspective it doesn't matter.

Titus said...

Bullshit. The future holds death for all of us.

Bender said...

If that is what I meant, Gabe, that's what I would have said.

Revenant said...

Of course it doesn't make sense to "scientists," but it makes perfect sense to any Jew or Christian.

It is easy to make "sense" of life if you unthinkingly accept what you're told about it.

That's why small children are often so convinced of things that simply aren't true at all.

Revenant said...

Bullshit. The future holds death for all of us.

Which is a pretty good reason for our brains to be wired for unrealistic optimism.

Historically, the average human lived a life of backbreaking labor carried out under grinding poverty. Most of his children died early, and he had little freedom or choice in his daily life. Ultimately he died and was soon forgotten.

There was probably a lot of selective pressure in favor of unrealistically optimistic men and women. The realistic ones spent their lives really depressed, I expect.

David said...

By the way, this explains the editorial staff and ownership of the New York Times.

The Crack Emcee said...

RuyDiaz,

Does this mean that only the depressed have a firm grasp on reality?

Yes.

Bender said...

Well, you might be unthinking, Revenant, but that does not describe the vast history of Judeo-Christian thought, philosophy, and theology.

Historically, Judeo-Christian faith and science have been understood as being entirely compatible. After all, in both religions, God is a God of Truth and Reason (e.g. "I am" and "Logos"), and the universe is held to be governed by reason, as opposed to impersonal forces. The word "science" is from the Latin scientia, meaning "knowledge," and it was a major concern of the ministry of Jesus that people have a knowledge of the truth, because "the truth will set you free." Indeed, the Catholic Church was at the forefront of establishing places of true scientific learning (universities), as well as multiple academies of science, and many of the greatest achievements of science were accomplished by Catholic priests and other men and women of faith. That is not because Jews and Christians are mind-numbed automatons, but on the contrary, their faiths thirst for truth and seek understanding.

As far as a Jew or Christian is concerned, if the Exodus is merely a fairy tale, if the Resurrection is a myth, then to hell with them both. It is not the faithful Jew or Christian who is unthinking, but the modern relativist who merely goes wherever the stream takes him.

It is only in the modern era that folks have sought to drive a wedge between science and faith, thereby proving their total ignorance of both. To be sure, in the modern era, there are many people, people of counterfeit so-called "science" who dispute the very notion of the existence of objective truth, and who arbitrarily place limits on what is allowed to be known, thereby resulting, not in greater freedom, but in a dictatorship of relativism.

Robert Cook said...

"Does this mean that only the depressed have a firm grasp on reality?"

I believe there have been studies that suggest that depressed people have a more accurate perception of the reality around them.

Robert Cook said...

"Meanwhile, your typical atheistic/agnostic existentialist is generally mired in doubt and misery until they are so overwhelmed with their personal nihilism, that they end up putting a gun in their mouths and pulling the trigger.

"A lot of so-called scientists are such existentialists."


A fine example of a statement pulled whole from the speaker's nether regions.

Robert Cook said...

A bent toward optimism is obviously advantageous in that it drives us onward in the face of adversity, such that we can often prevail where it might have seemed we could not.

A bent toward optimism is disadvantageous when it drives us--as individuals or as nations--to deny that peril faces us; or to misinterpret or misidentify the nature or cause of peril that we may perceive; or to assume that such peril as we may acknowledge can be easily met and defended against, or simply ignored.

ConsCon said...

I'm sorry, but is this something we need to be spending a lot of time researching? We need to figure out - finally - how to design and produce fusion energy. We need radiation shielding so that we can go all over the Solar System. Research must be done to eradicate the worst diseases on the planet!

And finally, we need the scientists to figure out why the TV networks keep canceling the best shows!

traditionalguy said...

A post Christian point of view applies two principles for a happy life are 1) It is more blessed to ask for forgiveness than to ask permission, and 2)reduce everything to its most simple form, but not more simple than that. The result is to always believe actions will succeed, and if not then a valuable lesson is learned to do it all again.

Cincinnatus said...

This has always cheered me up.

Joshua said...

Optimism is a pro-survival trait: pessimists never prepare for when things go wrong because they assume preparation won't help, and they give up too easily, often when success is within their grasp.

Richard Wiseman did a study where he gave people who had previously identified themselves as feeling consistently lucky or unlucky a newspaper and asked them to count the number of photographs. The "unlucky" folks took several minutes; the "lucky" folks took only seconds because they spotted the big 2-inch type message on the second page that said "Stop counting, there are 43 photographs." The "unlucky" folks also missed a message halfway through saying something like tell the researcher you saw this and he'll pay you 250 pounds.

geoffrobinson said...

A famous Christian apologist did his doctoral thesis on self-deception. Actually, the Christian religion talks a good bit about self-deception.

The prophet Jeremiah said "the heart is deceitfully wicked, who can know it?"

Paul in Romans describes how we hate God and we have suppressed innate knowledge of Him.

The aforementioned apologist, Greg Bahnsen, did a lot of work around this theme. There are many things we believe that are necessary to go about our lives that require theism to be true if we are to really assume those things.

Robert Cook said...

"Richard Wiseman did a study where he gave people who had previously identified themselves as feeling consistently lucky or unlucky a newspaper and asked them to count the number of photographs. The 'unlucky' folks took several minutes; the 'lucky' folks took only seconds because they spotted the big 2-inch type message on the second page that said 'Stop counting, there are 43 photographs. The 'unlucky' folks also missed a message halfway through saying something like tell the researcher you saw this and he'll pay you 250 pounds."

And what conclusions did Mr. Wiseman draw from the results of his study?

It may be that the self-identified pessimists saw the advisory to "stop counting, there are 43 photos" right away, but wanted to verify for themselves how many photos there were. After all, how were they to know the advisory was accurate or truthful? Perhaps this is a trait of pessimists: they refuse to accept the pronouncements handed to them and insist on learning for themselves what the data around them consist of or may show. Perhaps optimists are too ready to believe that which they are told by those "in authority."

As for the second advisory regarding the promise of payment to stop counting, again, perhaps the pessimists saw it and distrusted it, or felt an attempt was being made to fool or coerce them? Perhaps optimists are too ready to accept promises made to them.

gerry said...

No wonder socialists still exist!

Bender said...

Actually, the Christian religion talks a good bit about self-deception

That is exactly right. It is part and parcel of sin, which is an act or thought contrary to truth. Error leads to greater error, until one gets to the point where he prefers the lie to the truth.

And that is a major part of the need for revelation, to be a light in a dark world, to make the blind see. But some prefer the darkness, some prefer to be blind. Some prefer to be gods unto themselves (there really are no atheists, either you believe that God is God, or you believe that you are god).

But in accepting the truth, that which makes one free, the Christian knows that that does not usher in a cushy life, it does not mean that all will be a worldly paradise. Instead, the Christian knows that such truth will mean a harder life, that the world will hate him (as we see here in this combox), and persecute him (as we see all over the Muslim world), not to mention having the obligation of giving up all those delicious sinful wants and selfish desires and actions.

M. Simon said...

There are two main choices on how to live your life:

1. Be a realist and be miserable
2. Be an optimist and be happy

I choose happy. When I take my engineer hat off.

M. Simon said...

David said...

For example, I keep hoping and expecting that the "Shocking Meat Video" will disappear from Althouse Blog.

5/15/11 7:26 PM


Yeah Ann. Why? I could understand if you needed the money.

David said...

What is true is of no import. What one wants--needs--to be true makes all the difference. Reality is infinitely malleable in the human mind. (Otherwise this species would never reproduce via infatuation.)

goodspkr said...

There a numerous studies on optimists vs pessimist.

Optimists do better in school, do better at work and in fact even live longer than do pessimists.

Of course if you are a pessimist, what else would you expect.

Laika's Last Woof said...

Darwin favors parents.

Parenting is grueling work, from the morning sickness through high school graduation.

Only a hopeless optimist would choose to have children. If my reason for existence is my parents' slightly skewed objectivity I'm thankful for the rose-tinted brain chemistry.

TW: "kablerb"

"Darwin favors the optimist." Ka-blerb!

cacchip said...

Pandora must have been on to something all of those years ago.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Triangle Man wins the thread, right out of the box.

David, not infinitely malleable, no. That is a Freshman bull session idea, also favored by early 20th C philosophers, for about the same reasons. I'll grant a lot, but late in the discussion, you will find you have to get up and go to the bathroom, regardless of the illusory nature of it all.

Relatedly, there is an advantage to unwarranted optimism up to a point. If that dad-gum-never-say-die spirit works 10% of the time, then the fools who believe it works 90% of the time will have a lot of disappointments, but will succeed more often than the fools who say it never works. There is clearly a reality tradeoff, where one must face the fact that Stalin's plans are not going to result in a New Soviet Man and we're all going to starve if we continue on this road. Yet sadly enough, reality seems to have an evolutionary bias toward hopefulness, even though a lot of people pay a high price in disillusionment.

Now that I think of it, hell yeah. You don't become disillusioned until later years, when you have already raised children to successful mating (the real evolutionary task of humans). By then it doesn't matter. Be as miserable as you want, the damage is done. You invested your optimism in the next generation, and reality doesn't care whether you think it was worth it or not.

Helluva POV for an evangelical Christian, I know. But we're more flexible about these things than you'd think, if you don't start by insulting us.