Outlook? Rosy!

A recent study indicates that about 80% of us are optimists and that our optimism interferes with our acceptance of reality (1,2). My first reaction was “Nonsense!” but then I realized that I was being optimistic and not accepting reality. Before my dilemma sends me into an infinite loop, here is a brief outline of the work by Sharot, Korn and Dolan.

A small group (a total of about 40 young adult ‘lab-rats’ in three groups) were ‘trained’ on estimating the probability of something bad happening to them such as getting PTSD or dying before 90.

The big test came with a huge list of nasties that could happen from getting their bike stolen, through getting divorced to dying of cancer. fMRI scans were included when the candidates were then given the statistical risks that we all face. They were again asked to rate their probability of experiencing the personal disasters.

With such a long list, their memories would have to have been much better than normal to be accurate of course. As mentioned above, most people were optimists. With conditions that they had heard that they had lower chances of being at the receiving end, they updated their estimates markedly in that direction. However, when the reverse was the case, their correction to their estimate was much less.

Well, of course, most of us are optimists, but the stats are out there. Were they not listening? The fMRI scans showed that they weren’t doing sufficient processing. The scans showed low activity in the part of the brain by your right front temple. This is the part that controls your risk aversion. So, the optimistic participants were reckoning that they would beat the odds – the stats were for the rest of us.

I guess most of the lemmings must think that they are out for a pleasant cross-country run! Maybe not the best survival strategy.

  1. http://www.nature.com/neuro/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/nn.2949
  2. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-15214080

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