The Optimism Bias

Interesting article in Time on the general tendency of people to look at the future and the past through rose-colored glasses.  No one’s totally sure why this happens, but presumably there are certain selection advantages to a less-than-totally-accurate assessment of things.  Tali Sharot splains:

Overly positive assumptions can lead to disastrous miscalculations — make us less likely to get health checkups, apply sunscreen or open a savings account, and more likely to bet the farm on a bad investment. But the bias also protects and inspires us: it keeps us moving forward rather than to the nearest high-rise ledge. Without optimism, our ancestors might never have ventured far from their tribes and we might all be cave dwellers, still huddled together and dreaming of light and heat.

Sharot cites the work of Ajit Varki of UCSD, who believes that the human ability to imagine the future necessitates a built-in bias toward the positive.  After all, if we are able to comprehend the inevitability of our own deaths, what’s to keep us from rolling over and calling it quits?  Natural selection, of course — those of us with a good dose of optimism keep plugging away, and presumably bearing offspring in the process.  This is a powerful reminder that natural selection trumps objectivity with pragmatism: the only enduring truth is that which offers a selection advantage.

Now there’s an uplifting thought, eh?

About the author


View all posts