How Far Will Optimism Get Us?

According to Tali Sharot, our innate optimism bias is necessary, but needs to be taken in doses. 

The deluge of executive orders—a resurrection of the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines; an end of government funding to the NEA and NEH; millions of Americans in jeopardy of losing health care; contested abortion rights—is harrowing to many. Is optimism possible in such a situation?


Reading Tali Sharot’s The Optimism Bias you’d think that’s our only course of action. Most humans, she argues, are illogically optimistic; it’s part of our neurological inheritance. Optimism pervades the entire planet, regardless of age, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status, though, admittedly, the poorer often show less enthusiasm about the future.

To understand our optimism bias let’s begin with identity. Who are you? How do you define yourself? It’s impossible to reference who you are without referring to the past: your memories. The same neural regions, including the hippocampus, are implicated in remembering our past as in envisioning the future.

This makes sense, as our projected future self can only be built from the foundation of that which has passed. Mythologist Joseph Campbell recognized this over a half-century ago when pointing out Buddhist nuns don’t dream of Jesus. Their reference point is a different religious figure altogether.

Sharot suggests that our ability to form memories might be an adaptation of future planning. Neuroscientist Rodolfo Llinás posits that all life from eukaryotic cells forward persists due to prediction. Whether moving toward food, shelter, or reproductive opportunities, animals rely on the navigational skills of survival to plot out their next procedure.

Memories could have been adapted from plotting: the dog recalling its buried bone or the Neanderthal wanting the warmth of a cave after a day of hunting. At some point metacognition kicked in. Instead of using our memory system to cover the bare minimum, we started weaving elaborate stories of existence and communicating them to one another—language, after all, was once a mneumonic device.

If we’re going to envision the future it makes sense from an emotional and psychological standpoint that it be an improvement of the present. To those suffering from depression or anxiety, the present might fill one with such dread that anything further seems insurmountable. Yet for most the optimism bias is a necessary feature of sustaining, and this requires forecasting: 

Optimism does not exist without at least an elementary ability to consider the future, as optimism is by definition a positive belief about what is yet to come, and without optimism, prospection would be devastating.

Of course, there is danger in being overoptimistic. For example, Sharot writes that those in perfect health are less likely to see a doctor if they believe the future is going to get better, an example of not recognizing one’s mortality. Maintaining positive expectations is important; understanding the limitations of optimism is equally critical.

Unfortunately most of us have terrible memories. (If you don’t think so, you’re only proving the bias: you believe your memory is spot-on while most others display faulty recalling. Most humans do this.) Sharot discusses the much-studied effects of 9/11. Those closest to the epicenter, within two miles, have exceedingly good recall of the vivid displays, smells, and sounds. Being four miles away reveals a different story. If you were watching on television chances are your memory is nothing like what actually happened.

That’s because when we recall an episode we bring it back piecemeal. Everything that has happened since that day plays a role in our remembering. This is why seemingly benign moments take on major significance later in life. Even life-changing occurrences are often misremembered:

When it comes to the most arousing events of our lives, our confidence in our memories is not a reliable indication of how accurate they are.

If memory is an adaptation of foresight, and we generally have a rosy picture of the future, the past is always going to seem more significant than it actually was—the myth of America’s ‘Golden Age,’ for example. Religions especially take advantage of exploiting this neurobiological trait: the perfection of the Jesus figure and the Kali Yuga, which in Indian philosophy places the entirety of human evolution in the dark ages. In both instances a better future awaits based on the notion of a perfected past that we’ve fallen from.

Optimism needs a healthy dose of skepticism to be fully effective. Derek Thompson discusses the dark side of American optimism in The Atlantic. Notions of Manifest Destiny and excessive patriotism imprint in us a feeling that all citizens are taken care of when statistics prove such a belief false. Our collective myth of social mobility is quantifiably ludicrous.

Yet the pull yourself up by the bootstraps mentality is a persistent falsity. Sure, some do, but most don’t. Remaining optimistic about future prospects is important, though, as Thompson writes, overlooking social failures is unhealthy. Since we believe in this myth more than those residing in developed European countries, we’re less likely to support government initiatives and charities aiding the downtrodden. And this is where a dose of reality needs to set in:

Ideally, Americans would maintain a culture of personal optimism—where each individual young person is motivated to work hard, believing that he or she can achieve their own definition of professional success—with a kind of public realism, which acknowledges that pure meritocracy is a myth, social mobility is not a natural state, and there is no shame in using government programs to correct the hardships life brings. But Americans will have to part with their uplifting overconfidence in their own nation’s perfect meritocracy. If Americans want to live the dream, they have to wake up first.

We might not be able to completely alter our neurobiology. In the long run that’s probably a good thing. But unyielding faith in, say, the ‘greatest jobs-producing president God ever created’ has to be taken with an ocean of salt, especially when his immediate orders run counter to that statement.

At the Women’s March in downtown Los Angeles I experienced optimism unlike any other protest I’ve ever personally witnessed. The future, for many in attendance, is a battle worth waging. This optimism is needed to correct the blatant legislative failures already being signed into order, and to correct the myth of perpetual progress. We might overestimate our future, but we mustn’t underestimate the power of the present. 

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Derek's next book, Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health, will be published on 7/4/17 by Carrel/Skyhorse Publishing. He is based in Los Angeles. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.

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