Are We Born Optimistic? Or Is It a Coping Skill We Learn as Adults?

80% of adults are overly optimistic about life—where does that cognitive bias come from?

There's one brain bias that affects 80% of adults and it has a familiar name you may not expect: optimism. Not always thought of as a cognitive mechanism, the optimism bias leads people to overestimate the likelihood of positive outcomes and to underestimate the likelihood of negative outcomes. It can be hugely helpful in our social lives and in keeping us motivated even if the trade off is, at times, the denial of reality. So where does this cognitive bias come from? Are we born with it, or do we develop it as we grow? Developmental psychologist Lori Markson compiles research about how optimism works in babies and young kids, and how that may help us to understand why we adults are the way we are. This video was filmed at the Los Angeles Hope Festival, a collaboration between Big Think and Hope & Optimism.

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Fantasy-Industrial Complex: How America Got Lost Inside a Dream

Why does America confuse fantasy for reality, in pop culture and in politics? Kurt Andersen can pinpoint the moment it happened.

The start of the 20th century was the birth of a strange new reality in the United States. The advent of the moving image, of Hollywood and sudden celebrity, caused a quantum shift in how Americans thought about the experience of life. Actors were elevated to the status of superheroes and demigods, and those left in the obscurity of the masses began to desire that elusive privilege: fame. But where America really went haywire, author Kurt Andersen explains, is when the cult of celebrity and the cult of capitalism merged: it was the opening of Disneyland in 1955. A bizarre reality where advertising met animation. You could buy real wares, from fake characters, in real stores, with make-believe themes. "What happened in Disneyland... did not stay there," says Andersen. From Mickey Mouse all the way to the White House, Anderson doesn't find it at all surprising that Americans might have a hard time telling what's true from what's false. He calls it the fantasy-industrial complex, and it might just be America's beautifully branded nightmare. Kurt Andersen's new book is Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History.

Reclaim Reality, Relationships, and Your Attention Span from Your Devices

Your future happiness and success will depend on the double-edged sword of embracing new technology to stay connected, and being smart enough to unplug at the right time.

There is a psychological self-deception called the end-of-history illusion, which refers to the feeling that—no matter where you are in the evolution of technology—your time seems incredibly advanced. However Adam Alter reminds us that the trajectory of progress keeps rising, and what we think is cutting-edge now—Snapchat, Facebook, the iPhone 8, the iPhone 12—will in ten years will seem laughably primitive. It's what we'll have in this new world that concerns Alter. He cites experts who predict that most of us will own VR goggles in the next 5 years, and if the success of clickbait and its irresistible effect on our psychology is any indication, the fully immersive alternative realities of VR will shake the foundations of our minds, relationships, and attention spans (which are already kaput). As we're lured into a life on the digital plain by corporations—who make money from every second they can capture our attention—virtual reality may threaten reality itself. Those of us who have known a life without it will have an slight advantage in managing its control over our behavior, but Alter raises concerns for children won't come at this technology pre-equipped and skeptical enough to see the intentions behind such lures—and what might be lost if we don't know how to disconnect. Adam Alter is the author of Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked.

Where Does Reality End and Imagination Begin? In the Future, We Might Not Know

Reality is whatever your body believes. Virtual reality knows how to hack that.

"The line between what it means to be dreaming and what it means to be awake is going to become very interesting," says Jordan Greenhall, CEO of Neurohacker. Virtual reality is perhaps the easiest way to conceive of that concept right now, but it's just one piece in a much larger body of accelerated technology on the horizon. Our sense of reality, how our self fits into our perception of the world, can be easily shaken through sensory input manipulation—and in very low-tech and low-quality ways. So image what a sophisticated approach will bring. VR and its relatives will be able to hack our mind in ways we will be helpless to resist—dream up an object and one day it might be 3D printed in quasi-real-time, straight from your imagination. Of course, there are enormous ethical implications. If we think social media encroaches on our lives now, we are not prepared for a future in which dreaming and waking look eerily similar. How will it change election campaigns, personal relationships, will you responsible for your own addictions and behaviors in this future? How will we establish the first rules of consent—hopefully not the hard way. VR will disrupt our very deepest construct: how we see and react to reality. If we are thoughtful about design and ethics, Greenhall hopes this radically upgrade our potential, rather than downgrade how we relate to one another.

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Are We Living inside a Massive Computer Program?

Is our existence base reality—or are we pawns in a matrix? Cognitive scientist Joscha Bach explains how we might be able to tell.

Are we living in a video game? If so, the joke is on us, says cognitive scientist Joscha Bach. When people debate the possibility of human existence as a simulation, it's predominantly assumed that we are the players. Our overlord simulators are watching us, right? Well, that doesn't seem to gel with the amount of detail present in our world and the observable universe beyond. Why did our cosmic creators bother to code trillions of galaxies into the viewfinders of our telescopes? The Higgs boson, for example, is not necessary for our existence, so who would have the time to add such irrelevant frills just for our amusement (maybe the simulators had a really great intern that summer)? The answer? It's not made for us. According to Bach, if this is a simulation it's unlikely that we are the main attraction and much more realistic that the simulators wanted to make a model of a universe to explore hypothetical physics. That tiny blue dot with primates mixing concrete all over the surface? "We are just a random side effect or an artifact of the fact that evolution is possible in this universe," says Bach.

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