Brain Imaging Reveals Why We Remain Optimistic in the Face of Reality

Craig Brierley, EurekAlert, October 9, 2011

For some people, the glass is always half full. Even when a football fan’s team has lost ten matches in a row, he might still be convinced his team can reverse its run of bad luck. So why, in the face of clear evidence to suggest to the contrary, do some people remain so optimistic about the future?

In a study published today in Nature Neuroscience, researchers at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging at UCL (University College London) show that people who are very optimistic about the outcome of events tend to learn only from information that reinforces their rose-tinted view of the world. This is related to ‘faulty’ function of their frontal lobes.

People’s predictions of the future are often unrealistically optimistic. A problem that has puzzled scientists for decades is why human optimism is so pervasive, when reality continuously confronts us with information that challenges these biased beliefs.

“Seeing the glass as half full rather than half empty can be a positive thing–it can lower stress and anxiety and be good for our health and well-being,” explains Dr Tali Sharot. “But it can also mean that we are less likely to take precautionary action, such as practising safe sex or saving for retirement. So why don’t we learn from cautionary information?”

In this new study, Dr Sharot and Professor Ray Dolan from the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging, together with Christoph Korn from the Berlin School of Mind and Brain have shown that our failure to alter optimistic predictions when presented with conflicting information is due to errors in how we process the information in our brains.

Nineteen volunteers were presented with a series of negative life events, such as car theft or Parkinson’s disease, whilst lying in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner, which measures activity in the brain. They were asked to estimate the probability that this event would happen to them in the future. After a short pause, the volunteers were told the average probability of this event to occur. In total, the participants saw eighty such events.

After the scanning sessions, the participants were asked once again to estimate the probability of each event occurring to them. They were also asked to fill in a questionnaire measuring their level of optimism.

The researchers found that people did, in fact, update their estimates based on the information given, but only if the information was better than expected. For example if they had predicted that their likelihood of suffering from cancer was 40%, but the average likelihood was 30%, they might adjust their estimate to 32%. If the information was worse than expected–for example, if they had estimated 10%–then they tended to adjust their estimate much less, as if ignoring the data.

The results of the brain scans suggested why this might be the case. All participants showed increased activity in the frontal lobes of the brain when the information given was better than expected, this activity actively processed the information to recalculate an estimate. However, when the information was worse than estimated, the more optimistic a participant was (according to the personality questionnaire), the less efficiently activity in these frontal regions coded for it, suggesting they were disregarding the evidence presented to them.

Dr Sharot adds: “Our study suggests that we pick and choose the information that we listen to. The more optimistic we are, the less likely we are to be influenced by negative information about the future. This can have benefits for our mental health, but there are obvious downsides. Many experts believe the financial crisis in 2008 was precipitated by analysts overestimating the performance of their assets even in the face of clear evidence to the contrary.”

‘Understanding the brain’ is one of the Wellcome Trust’s key strategic challenges. At the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging, clinicians and scientists study higher cognitive function to understand how thought and perception arise from brain activity, and how such processes break down in neurological and psychiatric disease.

Commenting on the study, Dr John Williams, Head of Neuroscience and Mental Health at the Wellcome Trust, said: “Being optimistic must clearly have some benefits, but is it always helpful and why do some people have a less rosy outlook on life? Understanding how some people always manage to remain optimistic could provide useful insights into happens when our brains do not function properly.”

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  • highduke

    The credibility of the conclusion, as it is based on the test results depends on the personality profile of each participant taking the test and since that info isn’t given then we can dismiss Sharot & Dolan as a neuroligical version of Marx & Engels. The 4th Paragraph? Nonsense. The more optimistic I am, the more often I accurately predict the outcome of events and I always keep count.

  • Enlightened

    Oh joy! Multiculturalism is going to bring us such good things! Indians, Muslims, Chinese, Blacks, Mexicans, OH! It’s so wonderful! I’m so optimistic for the future!

  • Jim

    My glass has been half empty for years now.

  • Free State Paul

    Optimism is a survival trait favored by natural selection.

    Pessimism, as so often expressed on this blog, is the sign of a genetic dysfunction.

  • Anonymous

    I wonder if the question ‘what are the odds this brain scan will lead to cancer’ came up during the test?

  • BO_Bill

    Irrational Exuberance Exhibit ‘A’ from Detroit:

    http://goo.gl/qoMWT

    In other people’s more realistic, if not more hopeful dreams, there might come a day when the people disproportionally of one race are not compelled by the use of government force to fund EBT cards, Section 8 housing vouchers, make-work jobs, and political handouts to the inner cities. Who knows, maybe one day we might be able to take a vote on it. Free from outside interference, these urban communities could then learn to provide for themselves to the best of their ability.

    That might be something to behold.

  • Anonymous

    Wonder if this is coming next? How many Whites do you think they will pick up and imprison on the pretext of “committing a future crime”? Or of being a racist?

    http://epic.org/privacy/fastproject/

    Technology can be our friend or our worst nightmare. It is increasingly becoming our worst nightmare.

  • Anonymous

    Clearly there are a lot of unrealistic optimists in the ranks of the PC clan.

    Everything must be lovey-dovey, OR ELSE!

    Bad news (fact) really gets these people out of sorts, because they HAVE TO maintain the fake semblance of happiness. In other words, I don’t think they really “SEE” the world this way, they warp it into a shape that pleases them. If you try to bend it into it’s realistic shape, you bend THEM out of shape.

    But I don’t think the financial hardships that (seemed to) surface in 2008, were caused by this sort of rosy-tinted outlook.

    It was sheer greed, plain, bald- faced lying that brought this about. Oh, and it’s been coming for a long time.

    On a positive note, determination , aka WILL, coupled with wisdom, can and will triumph.

    Let’s not be too negative, now. It doesn’t help us survive, either.

    The world DOES suck.

    We have to change it.

  • ZCKS

    Well from an evolutionary stand point it makes some sense sense.

    Think of the optimists like worker drones, they don’t realize what is happening as a predator comes along and eats/kills them. Meanwhile the queen & other realists realize just what is happening and proceed to escape while the drones serve as a food source/distraction for the predator.

    In other words the optimists are just so brain washed with their PC crap that they can’t for the life of them comprehend what is going on because it would go everything they think to be true. So instead they just continue about their day & ignore the problem.

    Realists on the other hand recognize the problem & try to fix it, sadly while this may have seen them awarded & recognized in the past the people in charge now use the optimists to further their own agenda & try to label realists negatively so nobody will listen to them.

  • Godefroy de Bouillon

    1 — highduke wrote at 5:18 PM on October 10:

    “The 4th Paragraph? Nonsense. The more optimistic I am, the more often I accurately predict the outcome of events and I always keep count.”

    ______________________________________________________________________________________

    Speak for yourself. Optimism is one of the worst traits of modern liberalism, and it has completely destroyed caution and common sense in the Western world for the last 40 years. Nowadays, being an optimist is the “positive” and “cool” thing to be regardless of the consequences (ie: government spending, desegregation, illegal immigration, miscegenation, and on and on.) It may make us feel better about life’s turmoils, but it’s still a complete denial of reality. Like William Arthur Ward said:

    “The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails.” No need to be an optimist when you can accept the facts and deal with them. REALISM, that’s the motto here in Amren.

  • Bonus Gift

    It’s called being well “calibrated” and “confirmation bias”; and humans are very, very bad at being well calibrated and very susceptible at searching for information that supports their conclusion(s). One or more comments here show this tendency. The study just confirms what is already known and adds a bit by linking it directly to being overly optimistic about medical odds and updating that type of information (regardless of sample size). In short, most people (i.e., on average) have positive opinions about the future and are hard pressed to change their forecasts and/or probabilities irrespective of the information presented. These are facts, the study just fills in some sketchy pieces with the brain scans.

    As it relates to AmRen, I would guess that the average AmRen reader is significantly more realistic about the future of a ‘diverse’ America than the average American. That is, they are better calibrated (at least because they are better informed and are clearly searching for that type of confirmation; which is a good confirmation because it is true as opposed to implicit or explicit lies as the media tends to provide on PC type topics). Having better calibration is a good thing on issues like race, not a bad thing. You are less likely to make mistakes. More specifically concerning ‘diversity’, the problem is that the media, Academia, etc. are massively miscalibrated, massively overly optimistic, and seemingly psychotically driven to confirm their diversity utopia meme that they become almost violent when reality actually pops up. This is a fatal mistake and one that AmRen is helping to correct one reader at a time; but the issue remains that most people are easily brainwashed by the happy meme especially if there is no real world evidence to contradict (e.g., the lack of any mention of race when the perpetrator is black and/or an illegal, etc.; again, a contrived misinformation if not downright lie).

    In my imperfectly, but realistically, calibrated view the study is indirectly relevant for AmRen. I think and feel that readers would be well advised to apply Western scientific method and improve their own calibration as well as try to improve the calibration of anyone they care about. Do not just read about such studies with a reflexive view that it is silly or wrong, when it is merely trying to describe reality. Learn from these types of studies and apply that knowledge to help our cause, don’t just dismiss it because you don’t want to believe you view the future with perfect precision. The reality is that we, on average (yes, even true Americans), are programmed to buy the happy lie when we should apply dispassionate white man’s science to the problem at hand, namely the country is being destroyed because “demography is destiny” and we are replacing the good with the bad. In short, a million white Americans is better than a million Mexican gang members and the results of such a policy are clear to see for those that would allow themselves to see.

  • Anonymous

    I AM optimistic because:

    1) I left the USA FOR A predominantly white European country.

    2) I am well stocked with precious metals, food, and (legally obtained and licensed) weapons and ammo.

    3) I own property in an Eastern European country where blacks and muslim are not exactly welcome.

  • Rat in a Maze

    show that people who are very optimistic about the outcome of events tend to learn only from information that reinforces their rose-tinted view of the world.

    These are the people who rely on the media to give them the “real” news and world view, the “rose-tinted view”, i.e., no mention of black-on-white atrocities, the economy is improving, unemployment is dropping, we are winning the wars in the Middle East, no need of the Second Amendment, the dollar is sound and gold is a “bogus” currency.

    No one needs an fMRI.

    A quick scan of Internet news will knock off those rose colored glasses and smash them into a zillion little shards never to be used again!