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Home » Uncategorized » 20181223 – The Optimism Bias- A Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brain

20181223 – The Optimism Bias- A Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brain


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The main idea of this book is going somewhat against the main idea of fashion psychology, which recently discovered a huge amount of situations when human brain misrepresents reality, while constructing its picture. The main point author makes is that it is incorrect approach. Whatever misrepresentation brain makes is beneficial for survival due to the simple fact that it is found in the brain of survivors who are currently alive and author uses results of extensive research and multiple real live examples to demonstrate how it works.


PROLOGUE: A Glass Forever Half Full?

This starts with author being puzzled by recent research data that demonstrated how human optimism distorts reality. It relates not only to the future, but also to the past. It is now well understood that humans do not recollect something the way computer memory does. Human recollection is rather reconstruction of some consistent memory from bits and pieces contained in the brain, which is implementing in process both filtering and invention of specific facts. Similarly human brain projects future only partially consistent with known reality, adding corrections needed to achieve optimistic bias. Author presents a research that she conducted on students to support these ideas. Here is her reasoning for why it happens: “The optimism bias protects us from accurately perceiving the pain and difficulties the future undoubtedly holds, and it may defend us from viewing our options in life as somewhat limited. As a result, stress and anxiety are reduced, physical and mental health is improved, and the motivation to act and be productive is enhanced. In order to progress, we need to be able to imagine alternative realities—not just any old realities, but better ones, and we need to believe them to be possible.

  1. Which Way Is Up? Illusions of the Human Brain

This chapter starts with illusions that brain creates while processing reality. One such illusion was an airline pilot’s spatial confusion that led to the crash of passenger plane. After that author discusses sever visual illusions that demonstrate brain’s functionality not as a tool of presenting reality, but rather tool for constructing reality representation based on clues. After presenting some visual illusions, author discusses well-known cognitive illusions like everybody being better than average and reviews photograph selection experiment– choice blindness.  One more interesting point is that research shows that thinking too much can lead to suboptimal judgment. Author provides example with posters selection.

  1. Are Animals Stuck in Time? The Evolution of Prospection

In this chapter author moves to animals and discusses their abilities for mental representation of time researched by observing their patterns of food hiding and recovery. This leads to discussion of physiological changes to the brain when knowledge is accumulated. As usual there is reference to London taxi drivers and their increased spatial processing parts of the brain. However she brings some really new information. It turned out that these taxi drivers pay for this increase in spatial effectiveness by losing some abilities in different functions. Even more interesting is discovery resulting from continuation of observation beyond retirement, which demonstrated that when demand stops, brain returns to normal levels of development for both spatial areas and other areas that where limited by spatial overdevelopment.  The final part of the chapter is about mental time travelling.

  1. Is Optimism a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy? How the Mind Transforms Predictions into Reality

Here author uses the story from sport to demonstrate that in some cases, actually great many of cases, unjustifiable optimism could motivate people to work harder, eventually not only making this optimism more and more justifiable, but leading to dreams becoming true.  Next part of the chapter is about stereotypes and how they mold relationship between people and could direct development in one direction or another. The typical example two persons one of whom stereotyped, as being better athlete because of race, indeed becomes a better athlete because of much more effort applied in athletic area. Author provides a few interesting experiments, demonstrating powerful application of stereotypes resulting in clearly observable changes in behavior and consequently result. The chapter ends with discussion of optimism saving and pessimism killing people in some cases of disease.

  1. What Do Barack Obama and Shirley Temple Have in Common? When Private Optimism Meets Public Despair

This chapter is about mass optimism or lack thereof that could be restored by popular public persona. Author refers to two such individuals Shirley Temple in 1930s and Obama. She obviously missing one small detail that Shirley Temple provided natural non-political optimism supported by everybody who was not hater of little cute girls. Barak Obama represented very political optimism of leftist kind not acceptable to significant part of population, so unlike Shirley he was very dividing and controversial person. Curiously after that she moves to samples of false hope provided by individuals like Madoff, which is actually very appropriate when discussing Obama.  After that author discusses interplay between pessimism and optimism. Which in developed countries like US often has form of: “everything is awful, but I am doing fine and expect it to continue.”

  1. Can You Predict What Will Make You Happy? The Unexpected Ingredient for Well-being

This is about what makes people happy and survey identify 5 factors from most to least important:

  1. More time with family
  2. Earning double what I do now
  3. Better health
  4. More time with friends
  5. More traveling

Then discussion goes into some of these things: marriage, finances, perspectives for bright future, and focus on some specific temporal need. She also discusses memory and anticipation of future as area where application of optimism is quite important. One of reasons author provides is this:” Our belief that happiness is just around the corner is, ironically enough, what keeps our spirits high in the present. Imagining a better future—which is attainable if we follow certain rules (or so we think) —maintains our wellbeing. “.  She also refers to biological link between optimism and mental health: “…depression is the inability to construct a future. As a matter of fact, clinically depressed individuals find it difficult to create detailed images of future events, and when they do, they tend to be pessimistic about them.”

  1. Crocuses Popping Up Through the Snow? When Things Go Wrong: Depression, Interpretation, and Genes

Here author concentrate on the complexities of life that could lead to psychological problems and even depression if there is lack of optimism. She starts with hypothetical story of two individuals in similarly difficult situation of relationship breakdown, which for one individual is just a problem to overcome, but for another complete prove that he not only failed in overcoming the problem, but also could not possibly have another successful relationship because of inherent deficiencies. From here she moves to learning helplessness in animals and people. This is not necessarily universal – some percentages of individuals refuse to do this learning and keep looking for solution even in the most impossible situation.  After that author discusses biological causes of depression and pharmaceutical treatments and other interventions. She even refers to some genetic indicator of inclination to be optimistic.

  1. Why Is Friday Better Than Sunday? The Value of Anticipation and the Cost of Dread

This is quite interesting approach to well known fact that anticipation of good or bad event often generate more happiness or unhappiness than event itself. Author supports it with experiments that demonstrate different value of the same event depending on its terminal position in the near or more distant future. From here author moves to temporal discounting – the tendency to value present more than future and experiments exploring different facets of this phenomenon. She ends this chapter with the story of Michael Jackson who demonstrated outstanding ability to lose money and commonality of such behavior for many Americans of much smaller means who fail to save because they discount future a bit too much.

  1. Why Do Things Seem Better After We Choose Them? The Mind’s Journey from Expectation to Choice and Back

This is about well-researched psychological phenomenon that when people make choice they become attached to this choice, so the value of selected item increases, sometimes dramatically. Author describes a number of experiments supporting this finding with especially interesting ones when people were deceived into believe that they made choice when in reality they did not do this. The interesting inference from this is that continuous reminding people that they selected company they work for, subject they study or whatever else, increases their commitment. Author also discusses reason for this: strive to avoid cognitive dissonance. Another reason, not necessary alternative is that selection between choices involves investment of time and effort, so by psychologically increasing value of selection one protects this investment. The final series of experiments demonstrated the process of choice is mainly subconscious by reviewing patterns of brain activity when the choices are presented: selected item initiate higher levels of activity well before selection had been made.

  1. Are Memories of 9/11 as Accurate as They Seem? How Emotion Changes Our Past

This chapter is about validity of human memories. It demonstrates quite convincingly that it is generally low. Author recorded personal recollections about such dramatic even as 9/11 a few days after it happened and then returned to the same people a few years later. Even if everybody believed that they remember every detail of this day, comparison with recorded data demonstrated that 25% had it completely wrong, about 50% were 67% wrong and only 7% were correct in their recollection.  The final and very important point that author makes is that people who were close enough to towers on 9/11 have a lot stronger memories, meaning that being there matters a lot. Research confirmed that different parts of the brain activated depending on how much person involved in recollected event, creating important emotional aspect of recollection that helps to fulfill the main objective of memory: to use previous experience to survive in current circumstances.

  1. Why Is Being a Cancer Survivor Better Than Winning the Tour de France? How the Brain Turns Lead into Gold

This comes from Lance Armstrong who was both and said that he values cancer survival because it made him a better man. Author uses it as example of important human ability to turn a lemon that life gives one into lemonade. What is interesting that people are pretty bad in predicting their condition after something like this happen. Author discusses a number of experiments with fMRI when objects selected one of two bad future events like broken leg vs. broken arm.  Within minutes after selection people change their estimate of selected condition as less severe than before. Another interesting experiment was to make students to walk some distance on campus in embarrassing outfit. One group was “high choice group” that prefer select outfit from a few options and another “low choice group” preferred to use whatever outfit was assigned. Contrary to expectation that the distance would feel longer than it was, both groups perceived it to be shorter with high choice perceived it nearly twice shorter than low choice group. The conclusion is that anticipation is very different from actual event. The final part of the chapter is about cognitive dissonance that makes people either reevaluate their views that caused it or reject reality as false and increase commitment to their views.

  1. A Dark Side to Optimism? From World War II to the Credit Crunch—Underestimating Risk Is Like Drinking Red Wine

After 10 chapters discussing mainly positive side of optimistic self-deception author moves to the negative side – human propensity to close eyes on probability of negative events. As example author uses Stalin’s inability to see very clear signs of coming German attack. Similarly people underestimate probability of serious illness, incidents, divorce, and what not. The amazing thing here is that even after being provided with statistical data for probability of negative events, people still believe that their own chances are much better than statistics. However when people encounter reality they make adjustment and go to somewhat different levels of optimism. In brief, as everything else optimism is good in moderate doses when it creates incentive to work harder and live smarter, turning into self-fulfilling prophecy.  However in excessive doses it could cause serious damage and author provides story of Sydney opera house, which was completed 10 year late and 14 times over budget.

EPILOGUE: A Beautiful Mademoiselle or a Sad Old Lady? From Prediction to Perception to Action

The brief epilogue presents one of these dual meaning pictures: young woman changes to old lady and back depending on viewer’s perception. Author’s point is that optimism is like these pictures; depending on user it could be highly beneficial or completely destructive.


I think it is very interesting approach and wealth of research and examples make this book quite useful for understanding humans. I also think that author, willingly or most probably unwillingly, demonstrates inhuman character of all socialistic movements and their acolytes including the one she is enamored with – Barak Obama. The inhumanity of these people comes from their contempt to other people and their abilities, even while they do not understand these people and have no clue about deep evolutionary benefits of distorting reality in ways beneficial for survival. So these Sozis, Nazis, and Commies feel entitled to dictate other people how they had to live, behave, and what they allowed or not to do, using for this purposes all means necessary and available from soft “nudging” to save more money for retirement to concentration camps and mass shootings to rid of “deplorable and irredeemable”. I understand that this book would not change anybody’s mind on wisdom of leading and forcing other people to act differently to what they want, but I think it gives some good scientific information for people who resist nudging, even when they are told that their believes and actions are against laws of statistics or probability or against common sense of their betters, who in reality are severely deprived of common sense due to the lack of practice.


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