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June 29, 2011 / Dr. Toad

And all the children are above average

The triumph of hope over experience — in the words attributed to Samuel Johnson, that’s what a second marriage is. Or, in the words of neuroscientist Tali Sharot who was in Town Hall last night to promote her book The Optimism Bias, that’s what most of our cognition is.

Tali Sharot

Tali Sharot

Samuel Johnson

Samuel Johnson

I should qualify that: most of our thoughts and anticipations about ourselves and those close to us. In all but the toughest of economic times, we generally think that our country is going to hell, society has lost its foundation and doomed, and our fellow citizens will fail in their aspirations. But not us! We’ll succeed, and we’ll be smarter, healthier and better-looking in the future, against all odds. That’s the nature of the cognitive illusion called the optimism bias.

Divorce rate in the US is 50%. But ask married people about their chances of divorce in the future, and you’ll get 0% (says Sharot). Most people think they’re above average too, in a closely related phenomenon called the superiority illusion. 93% of the population think they’re better than average drivers.

Sharot calls these illusions because these are persistent tricks that our brains play on us. Just like an optical illusion which persists even when you know what the trick is, you remain optimistic about your chances and abilities even when the reality and your bias have been revealed.

Sharot and colleagues’ work is to scan people’s brains in an fMRI machine to find out if and how we are wired for hope over the pesky downers of reality and experience. She talked very briefly about how they instructed volunteers to imagine mundane events such as taking a ferry or getting a haircut. Instead, people’s imaginations ran wild with fanciful scenarios of enjoyment (wind in my hair as I sail towards the Statue of Liberty, growing out lush hair to donate to charity and then celebrating with all my friends), and researchers found activity in the amygdala, which is the center of emotional processing and the part of the frontal lobe called rACC which modulates activity to enhance positive associations with the future. I hope to read the book soon to get more details on the neuroimaging experiments.

But it seems that our brains consistently overestimate the pleasantness of the future, as well as value anticipation of future pleasantness. My favorite economist George Loewenstein (because he wrote Because It Is There: The Challenge of Mountaineering for Utility Theory) even put a number on that, determining experimentally how much people were willing to pay for a celebrity kiss right now, or three days from now, or  a week or a year or ten years from now (it’s a bell-looking curve centered on the three days).

Sharot also talked about how mentally healthy people fail to learn undesirable information while mildly depressed people don’t have that problem. There’s more evidence that mild depression lifts the veil of the optimism illusion, and evolutionary biologists speculate that the advent of consciousness and predictions of the future in human evolution created an awareness of death — an unfortunately maladaptive awareness: it’s hard to motivate to do anything to sustain life now if you know you’re likely to die soon anyway. So the optimism bias had to co-evolve with self-awareness and awareness of death or humans would have died out. A speculation, a just-so story, but it is known empirically that mild optimism correlates with markers of good health such as reduced stress and anxiety, or an additional $32k in annual salary.

It seems like the biggest point of Sharot’s talk was that it should be possible — precisely because the optimism bias is an illusion — to maintain the happy advantages of this happy oblivion while actively compensating for the oblivion part. We know, for example, that project budgets are routinely underestimated. So the UK government issued a policy directive to specifically compensate for the optimism bias in budgeting, and as a result apparently the London Olympics budget is on target, for the first time in many many years.

There’s more to it than that, of course. But so long as all our children (and financial analysts) are above average, we should perhaps have more policies in place to prevent optimism-induced disasters like the recent financial crisis. Our brains will continue to shield us from too much contemplation of our own mortality, but at least we’d be able to make some reasonable steps to prevent said mortality from happening too soon.

I have only one more thing to say, and that is that I wish Town Hall would take credit cards or have an ATM on the premises.

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3 Comments

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  1. betterlivingthroughscience / Jul 5 2011 4:57 am

    We should be careful about intruding too much reality into our consciousness – we might all end up suicidally depressed. Very nice article, thanks.

    • Dr. Toad / Jul 7 2011 9:03 am

      I’m not sure if you’re really commenting on this article or that one about depression and realism. Either way, I hope your comment is at least partly in jest. Reality is very useful, and good to pay attention to. What The Optimism Bias seems to say is that our wrong estimates that place us consistently above average are an illusion, so that the effect persists even if we know that we’re doing it. That should be good news for realists: you can account for the illusion (for example by always increasing the projected budget) but it won’t make you less optimistic (and you’ll complete the project).

  2. Ben / Jul 19 2011 9:43 am

    Nice article! The 32k correlation is striking. Also, what a wonderfully expressive Samuel Johnson — he looks to me either not looking forward to the future, or distressed by the recent past. Tali Sharot looks more equanimous.

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