31st January 2012

I’ve been reading a book called ‘The Optimism Bias‘ by Tali Sharot. In a nutshell, the premise of the book is that people tend to have a cognitive bias towards optimism, and that this bias has been naturally selected for because it helps us to get things done, to move forward, to procreate. The reality is, most of our futures will be filled with a mix of negative, positive and neutral experiences. And yet, most people imagine their futures to be much rosier than they will turn out to be. Those of us who view the world more realistically are said to be mildly depressed. As I’ve said elsewhere in this blog, a little positive thinking is surely a good thing, and numerous studies have shown that a positive view of the future can and often does become a self fulfilling prophecy.

And yet, it seems to me, that a little depressive realism can be a useful thing. Perhaps, if a few more finance wizards and government officials saw the glass for what it actually was (sometimes half full, sometimes half empty, sometimes on the swift path to empty because its been spotted by a very thirsty giant…) many of the pickles we, as a society, currently find ourselves in, might have been avoided.

The reality is, things don’t always turn out well. People get sick, people die, markets fail, buildings fall, the earth shifts, divorces happen. The oddest thing, is that people are quick to accept that bad things do and will happen to others, and yet, we rarely imagine a future for ourselves with difficult things in it. In our own projected futures, we win Oscars, we get rich, we have perfect marriages and angelic children. This is of course, a mathematical and logical fallacy. Who are the people bad things are happening to if not us? Are we not the people?

Nevertheless, the optimism bias remains firmly in place for most of us, because to see the world as it really is: i.e. a slow (or swift) march to death with pleasures and pitfalls and boring bits, just isn’t that much fun. And let’s face it, if our past and our futures are ultimately stories we tell ourselves, we might as well accentuate the positive, cut out the dull parts, and write ourselves a good old fashioned Hollywood ending.