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The Optimism Bias

The Optimism Bias
The Optimism Bias

In The Optimism Bias: A Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brain, Tali Sharot argues that we have a neurobiological basis for imagining a positive future. “Humans,” she writes, “do not hold a positivity bias on account of having read too many self-help books. Rather, optimism may be so essential to our survival that it is hardwired into our most complex organ, the brain.”

From modern-day financial analysts to world leaders, newlyweds, the Los Angeles Lakers, and even birds, optimism biases human and nonhuman thought. It takes rational reasoning hostage, directing our expectations toward a better outcome without sufficient evidence to support such a conclusion.

Sharot argues the root of optimism starts with mental time travel.

Optimism starts with what may be the most extraordinary of human talents: mental time travel. That is, the ability to move back and forth through time and space in one’s mind. To think positively about our prospects, it helps to be able to imagine ourselves in the future. Although most of us take this ability for granted, our capacity to envision a different time and place is critical for our survival. It allows us to plan ahead, to save food and resources for times of scarcity, and to endure hard work in anticipation of a future reward.

While mental time travel has clear survival advantages, conscious foresight came to humans at an enormous price — the understanding that somewhere in the future, death awaits. This knowledge that old age, sickness, decline of mental power, and oblivion are somewhere around the corner, can be devastating.

Close your eyes for a second. Imagine five years from now. What pops into your head? How do you see your family life? How do you see yourself professionally?

Though each of us may define happiness in a different way, it remains the case that we are inclined to see ourselves moving happily toward professional success, fulfilling relationships, financial security, and stable health. Unemployment, divorce, debt, Alzheimer’s, and any number of other regrettably common misfortunes are rarely factored into our projections.

These (likely) unrealistic predictions of an amazing future extend to everything. We expect to do more work this week than last. Today was a bad day? No worries, tomorrow will be better.

Challenging the assertion that the key to life is low expectations:

Some people believe the secret to happiness is low expectations. If we don’t expect greatness or find love or maintain health or achieve success, we will never be disappointed. If we are never disappointed when things don’t work out and are pleasantly surprised when things go well, we will be happy. It’s a good theory — but it’s wrong. Research shows that whatever the outcome, whether we succeed or we fail, people with high expectations tend to feel better. At the end of the day, how we feel when we get dumped or win an award depends mostly on how we interpret the event.

Maybe that's why most of us wear rose-colored glasses:

We wear rose-tinted glasses whether we are eight or eighty. Schoolchildren as young as nine have been reported to express optimistic expectations about their adult lives, and a survey published in 2005 revealed that older adults (ages sixty to eighty) are just as likely to see the glass half full as middle-aged adults (ages thirty-six to fifty-nine) and young adults (ages eighteen to twenty-five). Optimism is prevalent in every age group, race, and socioeconomic status.

Sharot argues that one of the reasons the optimism bias is so powerful is precisely because, similar to our other biases, we're largely unaware of its existence.

Yet data clearly shows that most people overestimate their prospects for professional achievement; 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.

Having an overly positive sense of the future can be destructive. So what benefit does it serve?

Although the belief in a better future is often an illusion, optimism has clear benefits in the present. Hope keeps our minds at ease, lowers stress, and improves physical health. This is probably the most surprising benefit of optimism. All else being equal, optimists are healthier and live longer. It is not just that healthy people are more optimistic, but optimism can enhance health. Expecting our future to be good reduces stress and anxiety, which is good for our health. Researchers studying heart attack patients have found that optimists were more likely than nonoptimistic patients to take vitamins, eat low-fat diets, and exercise, thereby reducing their overall coronary risk. A study of cancer patients revealed that pessimistic patients under the age of 60 were more likely to die within eight months than nonpessimistic patients of the same initial health, status, and age.

She concludes:

Yes, optimism is on one level irrational and can also lead to unwanted outcomes. But the bias also protects and inspires us: It keeps us moving forward, rather than to the nearest high-rise ledge. To make progress, we need to be able to imagine alternative realities, and not just any old reality but a better one; and we need to believe that we can achieve it. Such faith helps motivate us to pursue our goals.

The Optimism Bias explores the optimism bias by investigating when it works for us and when it is destructive and gives examples of how it promotes well-being. If you're not in the mood for a full book but still want to know more, read the shorter edition (Kindle only), The Science of Optimism: Why We're Hard-Wired for Hope, which, in addition to the book, I quoted from above.

Talent Is Persistence

A fantastic interview with filmmaker Kirby Ferguson.

This part hit me.

What would your advice be to the 20-year-old version of you, who’s just starting their career?

I wish I had Everything Is A Remix when I was younger. I wish I knew that you can just start copying other people’s stuff and fiddling with it, and putting stuff into it, and just sort of build from there. It’s okay to be primitive. That’s a perfectly fine way to start making things.

I wish the earlier me understood work and practice more. Just the repeated concerted effort to get better at things. I wish I didn’t have the notions of talent and genius I had back then. I thought, “Oh, these other people, they just have something that I don’t have.” When really, they are just people who work more.

I wish I understood work. Work is the key to anything you want to do. If you want to play the guitar—anybody can learn to play the fucking guitar—you can be good at it. Maybe you won’t get to be a genius but you could be good.

You can be good enough to write good songs or make a good film or whatever. There’s no such thing as not having enough talent to get to that level. I mean, persistence is talent, really. Just sticking with it. Talent is not stopping.

How Your Focus Explains Why Condom Sales Soar During a Recession


“Promotion focus is about maximizing gains and avoiding missed opportunities.”

When you want to influence someone else a reasonable approach is to start by trying to figure out what that person wants and use that understanding to increase your odds.

In Focus: Use Different Ways of Seeing the World for Success and Influence, Tory Higgins and Heidi Grant Halvorson explore how our focus changes what we see and how we are influenced. The book grew out of Higgins' research. To them you either tend to be promotion-focused or prevention-focused. And it matters because it changes how we should influence you.

If you are promotion-focused, you want to advance and avoid missed opportunities. If you are prevention-focused, you want to minimize losses and keep things working.

If you are promotion-focused …

Studies from our lab (and many other labs now) show that promotion-focused people respond best to optimism and praise, are more likely to take chances and seize opportunities, and excel at creativity and innovation. Unfortunately, all that chance-taking and positive-thinking makes them more prone to error, less likely to completely think things through, and usually unprepared with a Plan B in case things fail. For a promotion-focused person, what’s really “bad” is a non-gain: a chance not taken, a reward unearned, a failure to advance. They would rather say Yes! and have it blow up in their faces than feel like they let Opportunity’s knock go unanswered.

If you, on the other hand, see goals as opportunities to meet responsibilities and to stay safe you are prevention-focused …

They consider what might go badly if they don’t work hard enough to achieve. They don’t play to win – they play to not lose. They want, more than anything else, to feel secure. When people pursue this kind of “good,” they have what we call a prevention focus. In our studies, we find the prevention-focused to be more driven by criticism and the looming possibility of failure (if, for example, they don’t work hard enough) than by applause and a sunny outlook. Prevention-focused people are often more conservative and don’t take chances, but their work is also more thorough, accurate, and carefully-planned. Of course, too much caution and hypervigilance for error pretty much kills off any potential for growth, creativity, and innovation. But for the prevention-focused, the ultimate “bad” is a loss you failed to stop: a mistake made, a punishment received, a danger you failed to avoid. They would much prefer to say No! to an opportunity, rather than end up in hot water.

Of course we're not pinned down into one category all of the time. Things change. How does this work? Let's look at condom sales.

Here's a paradox for you: why do condom sales go up in a bad economy, despite the fact that anxiety about finances reliably leads people to have less sex? The answer isn't as obvious as you may think. Yes, it's true that in a bad economy people are less inclined to want to have more children to support—but if wanting to avoid an unwanted pregnancy were enough, all by itself, to get people to use condoms, you'd expect them to be used far more frequently and reliably in the good economy too.

Once again, it comes down to a question of motivational fit. In good times, sex is fundamentally about pleasure—it's about fun. (Or at least it's supposed to be.) Using condoms is not a good fit (no pun intended) for sex because they are not a means to pleasure—they are a means to safety. And as you'll see, means that work for one focus are generally awful for the other. So if at the moment when you're deciding whether to use a condom, condoms don't fit your focus, it won't feel right to use one.

Unless, of course, times are bad rather than good. When the economy is bad, you experience a lot of anxiety every day, and that feeling spills over into your sex life as well. Even if sex itself remains mostly about pleasure, life in a bad economy becomes much more about safety and security. Condoms are a great means for those goals, so they create more motivational fit with people's general focus, and using a condom feels right.

Focus: Use Different Ways of Seeing the World for Success and Influence goes on to explore more about how where we focus changes almost everything.

Breakpoint — Bigger is Not Better

Jeff Stibel
Jeff Stibel

“What is missing—what everyone is missing—is that the unit of measure for progress isn’t size, it’s time.”

Jeff Stibel's book Breakpoint: Why the Web will Implode, Search will be Obsolete, and Everything Else you Need to Know about Technology is in Your Brain is an interesting read. The book is about “understanding what happens after a breakpoint. Breakpoints can't and shouldn't be avoided, but they can be identified.”

In any system continuous growth is impossible. Everything reaches a breakpoint. The real question is how the system responds to this breakpoint. “A successful network has only a small collapse, out of which a stronger network emerges wherein it reaches equilibrium, oscillating around an ideal size.”

The book opens with an interesting example.

In 1944 , the United States Coast Guard brought 29 reindeer to St. Matthew Island, located in the Bering Sea just off the coast of Alaska. Reindeer love eating lichen, and the island was covered with it, so the reindeer gorged, grew large, and reproduced exponentially. By 1963, there were over 6,000 reindeer on the island, most of them fatter than those living in natural reindeer habitats.

There were no human inhabitants on St. Matthew Island, but in May 1965 the United States Navy sent an airplane over the island, hoping to photograph the reindeer. There were no reindeer to be found, and the flight crew attributed this to the fact that the pilot didn’t want to fly very low because of the mountainous landscape. What they didn’t realize was that all of the reindeer, save 42 of them, had died. Instead of lichen, the ground was covered with reindeer skeletons.

The network of St. Matthew Island reindeer had collapsed: the result of a population that grew too large and consumed too much. The reindeer crossed a pivotal point , a breakpoint, when they began consuming more lichen than nature could replenish. Lacking any awareness of what was happening to them, they continued to reproduce and consume. The reindeer destroyed their environment and, with it, their ability to survive. Within a few short years, the remaining 42 reindeer were dead. Their collapse was so extreme that for these reindeer there was no recovery.

In the wild of course reindeer can move if they run out of lichen, which allows lichen in the area to be replenished before they return.

Nature rarely allows the environment to be pushed so far that it collapses. Ecosystems generally keep life balanced. Plants create enough oxygen for animals to survive, and the animals, in turn, produce carbon dioxide for the plants. In biological terms, ecosystems create homeostasis.

We evolved to reproduce and consume whatever food is available.

Back when our ancestors started climbing down from the trees, this was a good thing: food was scarce so if we found some , the right thing to do was gorge. As we ate more, our brains were able to grow, becoming larger than those of any other primates. This was a very good thing. But brains consume disproportionately large amounts of energy and, as a result, can only grow so big relative to body size. After that point, increased calories are actually harmful. This presents a problem for humanity, sitting at the top of the food pyramid. How do we know when to stop eating? The answer, of course, is that we don’t. People in developed nations are growing alarmingly obese, morbidly so. Yet we continue to create better food sources, better ways to consume more calories with less bite.

Mother Nature won’t help us because this is not an evolutionary issue: most of the problems that result from eating too much happen after we reproduce, at which point we are no longer evolutionarily important. We are on our own with this problem. But that is where our big brains come in. Unlike reindeer, we have enough brainpower to understand the problem, identify the breakpoint, and prevent a collapse.

We all know that physical things have limits. But so do the things we can't see or feel. Knowledge is an example. “Our minds can only digest so much. Sure, knowledge is a good thing. But there is a point at which even knowledge is bad.” This is information overload.

We have been conditioned to believe that bigger is better and this is true across virtually every domain. When we try to build artificial intelligence, we start by shoveling as much information into a computer as possible. Then we stare dumbfounded when the machine can't figure out how to tie its own shoes. When we don't get the results we want, we just add more data. Who doesn't believe that the smartest person is the one with the biggest memory and the most degrees, that the strongest person has the largest muscles, that the most creative person has the most ideas?

Growth is great until it goes too far.

[W]e often destroy our greatest innovations by the constant pursuit of growth. An idea emerges, takes hold, crosses the chasm, hits a tipping point, and then starts a meteoric rise with seemingly limitless potential. But more often than not, it implodes, destroying itself in the process.

Growth isn't bad. It's just not as good as we think.

Nature has a lesson for us if we care to listen: the fittest species are typically the smallest. The tinest insects often outlive the largest lumbering animals. Ants, bees, and cockroaches all outlived the dinosaurs and will likely outlive our race. … The deadliest creature is the mosquito, not the lion. Bigger is rarely better in the long run. What is missing—what everyone is missing—is that the unit of measure for progress isn't size, it's time.

Of course, “The world is a competitive place, and the best way to stomp out potential rivals is to consume all the available resources necessary for survival.”

Otherwise, the risk is that someone else will come along and use those resources to grow and eventually encroach on the ones we need to survive.

Networks rarely approach limits slowly “… they often don't know the carrying capacity of their environments until they've exceeded it. This is a characteristic of limits in general: the only way to recognize a limit is to exceed it. ” This is what happened with MySpace. It grew too quickly. Pages became cluttered and confusing. There was too much information. It “grew too far beyond its breakpoint.”

There is an interesting paradox here though: unless you want to keep small social networks, the best way to keep the site clean is actually to use a filter that prevents you from seeing a lot of information, which creates a filter bubble.

Stibel offers three phases to any successful network.

first, the network grows and grows and grows exponentially; second, the network hits a breakpoint, where it overshoots itself and overgrows to a point where it must decline, either slightly or substantially; finally, the network hits equilibrium and grows only in the cerebral sense, in quality rather than in quantity.

He offers some advice:

Rather than endless growth, the goal should be to grow as quickly as possible—what technologists call hypergrowth—until the breakpoint is reached. Then stop and reap the benefits of scale alongside stability.

Breakpoint goes on to predict the fall of facebook.

The Science of Snowflakes

Joe Hanson takes a look at the science of snowflakes. The origin of no two snowflakes being alike comes from Wilson Bentley in 1885. He's right (but for the wrong reasons).

Snowflakes are symmetrical but they're not perfect. They are ordered but they are created in disorder. Every random branch retells their history, that singular journey they took to get here. And most of all they are fleeting and temporary. Even if sometimes they don't look so unique on the outside, if we look within we can see that they are truly unique after all.