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How Optimism Distorts The Future
Humans are an optimistic bunch. We overestimate desirable traits (humor), skills (driving) and our future states (well-being and health). Worse, we believe that we are immune to these better-than-average errors, so much so that we are willing to bet small amounts of money in a laboratory setting. We’re not just optimistic – we’re blindly optimistic.
The question is why. One reason relates to how easy or hard it is to process a piece of information. In general, the easier it is to process something the more favorable we judge it. In a provocative piece of research Simon M. Laham, Peter Koval and Adam Alter discovered that lawyers with easy-to-pronounce surnames (Smith) ascended the legal hierarchy faster than lawyers with difficult-to-pronounce surnames (Colquhoun). In a similar study, Hyunjun Song found a positive correlation between how harmful participants rated food additives and how difficult it was to pronounce the names of the additives.
These findings are not psychological oddities. A few years ago, Alter teamed with Daniel Oppenheimer to publish a review of “processing fluency.” They demonstrated that how easy it is to retrieve or process information influences judgment in a number of domains. “Fluency is a ubiquitous metacognitive cue that accompanies cognition across the full spectrum of cognitive processes,” they concluded.
How does fluency relate to optimism? That brings me to a brand new paper by Ed O’Brien, a graduate student at the University of Michigan. O’Brien wanted to know if fluency affects how we evaluate our past and future states. Here’s the gist.
Thinking about positive and negative events involves not only the content of one’s thoughts but also the phenomenological experience of bringing them to mind – in particular, how easily thoughts are processed and retrieved. Accordingly, people’s metacognitive experience of ease of thought retrieval (“fluency”) may lead them to perceive more or less happiness when pleasant or unpleasant moments feel easier or harder, respectively, to think about.
In other words, when we recall or forecast moments (pleasant or unpleasant) to make judgments about our happiness in the past or future, how easily those moments come to mind will influence those judgments. Since humans are inherently optimistic,  pleasant moments will come to mind easier than unpleasant ones. As a result, we will maintain an optimistic perception of the future – even if it’s an unrealistically rosy one.
This tendency generates some interesting side effects. To get to the bottom of this O’Brien conducted five studies. In the first, participants listed eight personal experiences from the past year or the upcoming year that made or would make them happy or unhappy. Next, they rated on a scale from 0 to 10 how difficult to it was to generate each experience and how happy they were overall in the past year or how happy they would be overall in the upcoming year. O’Brien found that, “the easier it was to generate positive past experiences, the happier people thought they used to be; similarly, the easier it was to generate negative past experiences, the unhappier people thought they used to be.” So far, so obvious. How we perceive our happiness in the past or future depends on how easy it is to retrieve or generate happy moments.
Here’s where things get interesting. When participants imagined negative future experiences they did not inflate how unhappy they thought they would be. That is, even when participants easily generated negative future experiences they still predicted future happiness. Their optimism prevailed.
To confirm this finding O’Brien incorporated a twist into the second study. This time he instructed participants to generate a list of either 3 or 12 happy or unhappy experiences from the previous or forthcoming year. He found, paradoxically, that participants who recalled fewer positive events from the past remembered being happier while participants who recalled more negative events from the past remembered being happier. Likewise, participants who listed fewer positive future events projected happier futures. Though counter-intuitive, these findings support previous research showing that the more difficult it is to generate a list of something the more we discount it, even if we generate more examples.  The surprising part was that participants who listed negative future events did not display any asymmetries; they “predicted equal future happiness whether they listed 3 negative futures events or 12.”
O’Brien conducted three more studies that accounted for a few possible sources of error. Each confirmed his original hypothesis. Here’s how he sums it up:
The experience of easily imagining negative futures could have led people to increase their estimates of the likelihood of bad events and thus infer future unhappiness in line with standard fluency effect. But this was not the case. Rather, the effect of ease of retrieval was apparently not powerful enough to nudge participants away from their preexisting expectations.
One possible reason the fluency effect was erased in this one instance relates to familiarity. Namely, fluency loses its power when people think about unfamiliar things. In a 2008 study, for example, Eugene Caruso demonstrated that fluency effects are negated when people evaluate unfamiliar people. This means we only rely on fluency when we are making self-judgments or judgments about people we know. O’Brien speculates that generating a list of negative future events is likewise unfamiliar. Our optimism makes it so easy to envision a promising future that the possibility of an unpromising one feels unnatural, so we simply dismiss it.
This null effect of fluency could have important consequences for rethinking wellbeing. “People seem to ‘explain away’ the presence of unpleasant prospects, believing they won’t actually happen,” explains O’Brien. “But they have a harder time explaining the absence of pleasant prospects. This means that a constant focus on the positive in life may ironically make us feel worse in the long-run (if we struggle to achieve those things) than considering the bad things (and feeling confident they won’t actually happen).”
Let’s translate. It’s easy to be the world’s foremost authority on yourself – you know what and whom you like – yet this research suggests that self-assessment is a tricky endeavor. When we think about who we are we ponder the past and the future. The problem is the subjective ease or difficulty that we experience when we make these speculations actually alters them. The culprit, it seems, is our blind optimism.
But maybe this so-called irrationality isn’t so bad. Consider that people with clinical depression usually do not exhibit the typical biases that accompany optimism. They are much more realistic about the fact that the future isn’t always rosy. For the rest of us, then, optimism may blind, but at least it comforts.
 Data from two pilot surveys provides some evidence for this.
 For example, in a 1991 study Norbert Schwarz’ – O’Brien’s advisor and a legend in the field – found that participants who generated a list of 6 instances in which they were assertive rated themselves as more assertive compared to participants who generated a list of 12 instances. Since generating 12 instances was harder, the participants equated the difficulty of retrieval with being less assertive.
Evolution doesn't clean up after itself very well.
- An evolutionary biologist got people swapping ideas about our lingering vestigia.
- Basically, this is the stuff that served some evolutionary purpose at some point, but now is kind of, well, extra.
- Here are the six traits that inaugurated the fun.
The plica semilunaris<img class="rm-lazyloadable-image rm-shortcode" type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTA5NjgwMS9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY3NDg5NTg1NX0.kdBYMvaEzvCiJjcLEPgnjII_KVtT9RMEwJFuXB68D8Q/img.png?width=980" id="59914" width="429" height="350" data-rm-shortcode-id="b11e4be64c5e1f58bf4417d8548bedc7" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
The human eye in alarming detail. Image source: Henry Gray / Wikimedia commons<p>At the inner corner of our eyes, closest to the nasal ridge, is that little pink thing, which is probably what most of us call it, called the caruncula. Next to it is the plica semilunairs, and it's what's left of a third eyelid that used to — ready for this? — blink horizontally. It's supposed to have offered protection for our eyes, and some birds, reptiles, and fish have such a thing.</p>
Palmaris longus<img class="rm-lazyloadable-image rm-shortcode" type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTA5NjgwNy9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzMzQ1NjUwMn0.dVor41tO_NeLkGY9Tx46SwqhSVaA8HZQmQAp532xLxA/img.jpg?width=980" id="879be" width="1920" height="2560" data-rm-shortcode-id="4089a32ea9fbb1a0281db14332583ccd" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Palmaris longus muscle. Image source: Wikimedia commons<p> We don't have much need these days, at least most of us, to navigate from tree branch to tree branch. Still, about 86 percent of us still have the wrist muscle that used to help us do it. To see if you have it, place the back of you hand on a flat surface and touch your thumb to your pinkie. If you have a muscle that becomes visible in your wrist, that's the palmaris longus. If you don't, consider yourself more evolved (just joking).</p>
Darwin's tubercle<img class="rm-lazyloadable-image rm-shortcode" type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTA5NjgxMi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0ODUyNjA1MX0.8RuU-OSRf92wQpaPPJtvFreOVvicEwn39_jnbegiUOk/img.jpg?width=980" id="687a0" width="819" height="1072" data-rm-shortcode-id="ff5edf0a698e0681d11efde1d7872958" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Darwin's tubercle. Image source: Wikimedia commons<p> Yes, maybe the shell of you ear does feel like a dried apricot. Maybe not. But there's a ridge in that swirly structure that's a muscle which allowed us, at one point, to move our ears in the direction of interesting sounds. These days, we just turn our heads, but there it is.</p>
Goosebumps<img class="rm-lazyloadable-image rm-shortcode" type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTA5NzMxNC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyNzEyNTc2Nn0.aVMa5fsKgiabW5vkr7BOvm2pmNKbLJF_50bwvd4aRo4/img.jpg?width=980" id="d8420" width="1440" height="960" data-rm-shortcode-id="8827e55511c8c3aed8c36d21b6541dbd" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Goosebumps. Photo credit: Tyler Olson via Shutterstock<p>It's not entirely clear what purpose made goosebumps worth retaining evolutionarily, but there are two circumstances in which they appear: fear and cold. For fear, they may have been a way of making body hair stand up so we'd appear larger to predators, much the way a cat's tail puffs up — numerous creatures exaggerate their size when threatened. In the cold, they may have trapped additional heat for warmth.</p>
Tailbone<img class="rm-lazyloadable-image rm-shortcode" type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTA5NzMxNi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY3MzQwMjc3N30.nBGAfc_O9sgyK_lOUo_MHzP1vK-9kJpohLlj9ax1P8s/img.jpg?width=980" id="9a2f6" width="1440" height="1440" data-rm-shortcode-id="4fe28368d2ed6a91a4c928d4254cc02a" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Image source: Decade3d-anatomy online via Shutterstock<p>Way back, we had tails that probably helped us balance upright, and was useful moving through trees. We still have the stump of one when we're embryos, from 4–6 weeks, and then the body mostly dissolves it during Weeks 6–8. What's left is the coccyx.</p>
The palmar grasp reflex<img class="rm-lazyloadable-image rm-shortcode" type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTA5NzMyMC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzNjY0MDY5NX0.OSwReKLmNZkbAS12-AvRaxgCM7zyukjQUaG4vmhxTtM/img.jpg?width=980" id="8804c" width="1440" height="960" data-rm-shortcode-id="67542ee1c5a85807b0a7e63399e44575" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Palmar reflex activated! Photo credit: Raul Luna on Flickr<p> You've probably seen how non-human primate babies grab onto their parents' hands to be carried around. We used to do this, too. So still, if you touch your finger to a baby's palm, or if you touch the sole of their foot, the palmar grasp reflex will cause the hand or foot to try and close around your finger.</p>
Other people's suggestions<p>Amir's followers dove right in, offering both cool and questionable additions to her list. </p>
Fangs?<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-conversation="none" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Lower mouth plate behind your teeth. Some have protruding bone under the skin which is a throw back to large fangs. Almost like an upsidedown Sabre Tooth.</p>— neil crud (@neilcrud66) <a href="https://twitter.com/neilcrud66/status/1085606005000601600?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">January 16, 2019</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
Hiccups<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-conversation="none" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Sure: <a href="https://t.co/DjMZB1XidG">https://t.co/DjMZB1XidG</a></p>— Stephen Roughley (@SteBobRoughley) <a href="https://twitter.com/SteBobRoughley/status/1085529239556968448?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">January 16, 2019</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
Hypnic jerk as you fall asleep<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-conversation="none" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">What about when you “jump” just as you’re drifting off to sleep, I heard that was a reflex to prevent falling from heights.</p>— Bann face (@thebanns) <a href="https://twitter.com/thebanns/status/1085554171879788545?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">January 16, 2019</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script> <p> This thing, often called the "alpha jerk" as you drop into alpha sleep, is properly called the hypnic jerk,. It may actually be a carryover from our arboreal days. The <a href="https://www.livescience.com/39225-why-people-twitch-falling-asleep.html" target="_blank" data-vivaldi-spatnav-clickable="1">hypothesis</a> is that you suddenly jerk awake to avoid falling out of your tree.</p>
Nails screeching on a blackboard response?<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-conversation="none" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Everyone hate the sound of fingernails on a blackboard. It's _speculated_ that this is a vestigial wiring in our head, because the sound is similar to the shrill warning call of a chimp. <a href="https://t.co/ReyZBy6XNN">https://t.co/ReyZBy6XNN</a></p>— Pet Rock (@eclogiter) <a href="https://twitter.com/eclogiter/status/1085587006258888706?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">January 16, 2019</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
Ear hair<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-conversation="none" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Ok what is Hair in the ears for? I think cuz as we get older it filters out the BS.</p>— Sarah21 (@mimix3) <a href="https://twitter.com/mimix3/status/1085684393593561088?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">January 16, 2019</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
Nervous laughter<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">You may be onto something. Tooth-bearing with the jaw clenched is generally recognized as a signal of submission or non-threatening in primates. Involuntary smiling or laughing in tense situations might have signaled that you weren’t a threat.</p>— Jager Tusk (@JagerTusk) <a href="https://twitter.com/JagerTusk/status/1085316201104912384?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">January 15, 2019</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
Um, yipes.<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-conversation="none" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Sometimes it feels like my big toe should be on the side of my foot, was that ever a thing?</p>— B033? K@($ (@whimbrel17) <a href="https://twitter.com/whimbrel17/status/1085559016011563009?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">January 16, 2019</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
A new study looks at how images of coffee's origins affect the perception of its premiumness and quality.
Research has shown how important empathy is to relationships, but there are limits to its power.
- Empathy is a useful tool that allows humans (and other species) to connect and form mutually beneficial bonds, but knowing how and when to be empathic is just as important as having empathy.
- Filmmaker Danfung Dennis, Bill Nye, and actor Alan Alda discuss the science of empathy and the ways that the ability can be cultivated and practiced to affect meaningful change, both on a personal and community level.
- But empathy is not a cure all. Paul Bloom explains the psychological differences between empathy and compassion, and how the former can "get in the way" of some of life's crucial relationships.