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, [1] 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. [2] 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.  


[1] Data from two pilot surveys provides some evidence for this.

[2] 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.  

Image via eska/Shuttershock.com

Scientists find a horrible new way cocaine can damage your brain

Swiss researchers identify new dangers of modern cocaine.

Getty Images
Mind & Brain
  • Cocaine cut with anti-worming adulterant levamisole may cause brain damage.
  • Levamisole can thin out the prefrontal cortex and affect cognitive skills.
  • Government health programs should encourage testing of cocaine for purity.
Keep reading Show less

Bespoke suicide pods now available for death in style

Sarco assisted suicide pods come in three different styles, and allow you to die quickly and painlessly. They're even quite beautiful to look at.

The Sarco assisted suicide pod
Technology & Innovation

Death: it happens to everyone (except, apparently, Keanu Reeves). But while the impoverished and lower-class people of the world die in the same ol' ways—cancer, heart disease, and so forth—the upper classes can choose hip and cool new ways to die. Now, there's an assisted-suicide pod so chic and so stylin' that peeps (young people still say peeps, right?) are calling it the "Tesla" of death... it's called... the Sarco! 

Keep reading Show less
Politics & Current Affairs

Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
    Patriotic.

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.


Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.