BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

The why behind those rose colored glasses ...

OK, so those of you who read my on-line blitherings with any regularity will realize that “optimism” is not one of my top mental states, so you can sort of imagine the scene at the dollar store when I found Tali Sharot's The Optimism Bias: A Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brain provocatively staring at me from the always-enticing shelves of $1 books … did I want it? Would it be nauseatingly optimistic? What was it about? Fortunately, a flip through its pages reassured me that this was a study of psychological and brain states, and not some Pollyannaish polemic about positivism, so into the cart it went. And, oddly enough, rather that “aging” in my towering to-be-read piles for an extended period, the prospect of reading a “neuroscience” piece seemed particularly attractive soon after, so here we are.

One of the things that, perhaps, created a connection here was that the author did not set out to do research on positivity, in fact, this book began in about as negative place as one could imagine, looking at how traumatic events – in specific the 9/11 attacks – served to shape memories. She notes: “I was interested in how the brain tricks us into believing that our recollections of exceptionally emotional events … are as accurate as video-tape, even when we are utterly mistaken.”, with particular emphasis on what she describes as “flashbulb memories” (“because of their sharp-edged, picturelike qualities”), which are “unusually vivid” and “reluctant to fade away”.

Sharot points to research which suggests that “Optimism is prevalent in every age group, race, and socioeconomic status.”, which she then expands on:
      Many of us are not aware of our optimistic tendencies. In fact, the optimism bias is so powerful precisely because, like many other illusions, it is not fully accessible to conscious deliberation. Yet data clearly shows that most people overestimate their prospects for professional achievements; expect their children to be extraordinarily gifted; miscalculate their likely life span (sometimes by twenty years or more); expect to be healthier than the average person and more successful than their peers; hugely underestimate their likelihood of divorce, cancer, and unemployment; and are confident overall that their future lives will be better than those their parents put up with. This is known as the optimism bias – the inclination to overestimate the likelihood of encountering positive events in the future and to underestimate the likelihood of experiencing negative events.
She starts off by looking at other “illusions of the human brain” … first describing another horrific air disaster, where an Egyptian crew was flying out of Sharm el-Sheik, headed to Cairo and on to Paris. In this crash, it appears that the pilot experienced “spacial disorientation”, or a type of vertigo where one is unable to detect the position of the aircraft in relation to the ground, resulting in trying to “correct” things which are not wrong, this then resulting in a “graveyard spin” (she notes this is also the likely cause of the private plane crash that killed John F. Kennedy, Jr.). Our sense of positioning is largely due to liquid-filled tubes in the inner ear, which “works extremely well when we are on the ground” but can be easily confused in powered flight. She moves from this to some visual illusions, both fairly familiar and not so much, and shows how the brain is frequently easily fooled. From here she moves to “introspective illusions”, where rather than truthfully reflecting inner mental processes, one inaccurately infers and constructs intentions of past mental states (in experiments where the subject chose one option, but was presented with a rejected option as being what they had chosen … 84% of subjects defended their “choice” even when it wasn't what they had actually picked). “The researchers dubbed the phenomenon choice blindness and the participants' disbelief that they could be fooled in this way was described as choice blindness blindness.” Optimism bias is a similar cognitive illusion, and not only are we blind to the illusory nature of it, we're blind to being blind to it.

A fascinating side-issue that is covered here is how the brain can re-arrange itself for knowledge … with examples given both of birds learning to hide food, and London cabbies learning “The Knowledge” (the vastly complicated mental map of the streets and locations that makes that profession as exclusive as it is). This is in support of the concept of “mental time travel”, which refers to “revisiting the past and imagining the future”. This leads up to the following:
      While the capacity for both awareness and prospection has clear survival advantages, conscious foresight also came at an enormous price – an understanding that somewhere in the future, death awaits us. This knowledge – that old age, sickness, decline of mental power, and oblivion are around the corner – is less than optimistic. It causes a great amount of anguish and fear. … {it has been argued} that the awareness of mortality on its own would have led evolution to a dead end. The despair would have interfered with daily function, bringing the activities and cognitive functions needed for survival to a stop. Humans possess this awareness and yet we survive. How?
      The only way conscious mental time travel could have been selected for over the course of evolution is if it had emerged at the same time as false beliefs. In other words, an ability to imagine the future had to develop side by side with positive biases. The knowledge of death had to emerge at the same time as its irrational denial. A brain that could consciously voyage through time would be an evolutionary barrier unless it had an optimism bias.
She takes a chapter to look at “self-fulfilling prophecies”, from the way that famed horse “Clever Hans” read clues in his handlers to come up with correct answers, to how stereotypes can reinforce themselves by framing expectations that can, in specific situations, can be totally reversed by making shifts in context, to even how different people can have totally different results from negative experiences depending on the way they process those events. She also compares some rather odd things: “Like Barack Obama's speeches, Shirley Temple's films mirrored a difficult era while at the same time promising a better future.”, while asking if these sorts of things trigger oxytocin release in their audiences.

Sharot also goes into material on comparative crime rates and the (usually wildly incorrect) perceptions of these, and lifestyle elements which are generally assumed to be positive (such as being married and having children), which actually, when studied, aren't, to even how more money has a limit, and actual dollar amount is less important than relative income compared with one's neighbors and peers. One thing that was particularly interesting was the idea of “depressive realism”:
In depressed patients, the rACC {rostal anterior cingulate cortex} fails in regulating amygdala function adequately. As a result, while healthy people are biased towards a positive future, depressed individuals perceive possibilities a bit too clearly. While severely depressed patients are pessimistic, mildly depressed people are actually pretty good at predicting what may happen to them in the near future – a phenomenon known as depressive realism. If you ask mildly depressed individuals what they expect in the upcoming month, they will give you a pretty accurate account. If you ask them about their longevity or the likelihood of having a certain illness, they will give you correct estimations. Could it be that without an optimism bias, we would all be mildly depressed?
I suppose, having been “mildly depressed” for decades, this probably explains why I (and folks like me) think that most folks are idiots because they think things which are plainly headed for disaster have a chance to turn out OK! This sets up a base for a consideration of financial issues … the optimism bias could well be at the heart of American's dire savings rates … people see upward trends where there are none, and spend in anticipation of those trends … pair this with an unwillingness to consider age and illness, and even the super-wealthy (she uses Michael Jackson as an example of this) end up in trouble.

A familiar concept is looked at from some different angles here, cognitive dissonance, and how decisions can be influenced … I marked the following as a particularly to-the-point example:
If you would like to increase your employees' commitment to your company, your students' commitment to their studies, your clients' appreciation of the service you are providing, remind them every so often of their freedom of choice. Remind them of their decision to work at this company, to study at their selected college, and to use the provided services. An airline I often fly with does just that.
She then insists that the “we know you have many options” announcement instantly convinces her that “since I chose this airline it must be better than the rest” (I guess some folks have less sensitivity to manipulation than I do!). The function here is that being presented with equally valid choices tends to make us uncomfortable, and anything that enables us to frame one choice as superior (or inferior) to the other enables a decrease in the doubt that we're making the right decision. Needless to say, there is a great deal of interest in the marketing world of how to manipulate these sorts of issues, and Sharot goes into a lot of the brain chemistry that plays assorted roles in these functions.
After making a choice, the decision ultimately changes our estimated pleasure, enhancing the expected pleasure from the selected option and decreasing the expected pleasure from the rejected option. If we were not inclined to update the value of our options rapidly so that they concur with our choices, we would likely second-guess ourselves to the point of insanity.
She then returns to issues around 9/11 for a while, looking at how memories formed – with both her own experiences on that day, and laboratory work on others' recollections. There's another section on how preferences form – in this case Lance Armstrong saying it was more important to be a cancer survivor than a Tour de France champion (disregarding, I assume, the realities of the doping penalties). Health issues come up here:
… If we underestimate health risks, our likelihood of seeking preventative health care and medical screening is reduced, and the likelihood of engaging in risky behavior is increased. … Underestimating risk can lead to an infinite number of medical issues that otherwise could have been prevented, costing our health system millions of dollars a year.
      Why would our brains be wired in a way that biases the process by which we learn about the world around us? Why would we develop a system that causes us to predict the future inaccurately? Could being irrationally optimistic have survival value?
Well, as anybody who has been exposed to new age materials over the past decade or so will tell you, it turns out that optimism can increase positive results, as the irrational expectations can still be “self-fulfilling”, so optimists heal faster than pessimists, live longer, etc. These benefits, interestingly, are primarily found with “moderate optimists”, leading the author to suggest “A certain underestimation of the hurdles in front of us allows us to jump forward with force.” … while “extreme optimism” just leads to bad results.

The Optimism Bias is a fascinating read, and hardly what I expected getting into it. The questions it raises in relation to human psychology are certainly of interest to anybody interested in how we function – be that in a marketing sense or a “Darwin Award” “hold my beer – watch this!” view of hominid behavior. This has been out for a number of years, and the hardcover (which I found at the dollar store) appears to be out of print, but there are e-book and paperback editions available. The on-line new/used guys have “good” copies of the hardcover for under a buck (plus shipping), which looks to be the best bet price-wise.

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Tags: book review
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