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?

LORI MARKSON: As a developmental psychologist who studies cognition in children we were really excited to be able to focus on a particular aspect of a cognitive bias, which is the development of optimism in children.

So we’re often studying cognitive mechanisms and how children are using these to reason about various aspects of the world around them, including other people’s thoughts and preferences.
And we also are looking at how children are choosing to learn from other people as well. So I’m going to talk about two lines of research. One—which I'll mostly talk about—is looking at the development of optimism in children, which we were really grateful to the Hope and Optimism Initiative to fund, so that we could do that. And another line is looking at, outside of children, how we’re thinking about society and how children’s own optimism might also apply to groups and society as well.

So for the purposes of operationalizing how we were going to go about studying optimism and where to start looking at this in children, we took a working definition that’s come from Tali Sharot, who’s going to speak here later, as well as others working in this field, thinking about optimism as a cognitive bias.

And this is a bias to overestimate the likelihood of positive outcomes and to underestimate the likelihood of negative outcomes. And there’s been a lot of work on this with adults which Mike already talked about, and Tali is going to speak about it and I’m not going to go into detail on it, but typically, roughly we see 80 percent of the adult population is optimistic.

So what about kids? I mean are kids optimistic in the same way as adults? Do we see this optimism bias? Now what we have seen in the data that we know to date is that kids are very positive. They seem to be very positive about themselves, and interpret expectations for themselves very positively, especially up to about six years of age or so.

But if you ask children, and you ask them to evaluate themselves, they tend to do this really positively. So here’s an example of watching a bunch of kids in a race, and one girl has pointed out that she can’t run very fast, and another girl over there has pointed out she can run fast. And a child is simply asked, “Which girl are you more like?” Okay, this is the way we can ask simple questions and get data out of kids. And here’s a six-year-old girl's typical answer, it would be something like: “Her. I’m more like the fast girl.” And kids will evaluate these on different scales but they tend toward optimism or at least having positive interpretations.
You can also look at this in an academic realm and something that can be evaluated much more easily, because you can ask for an adult evaluation of the situation. So here’s a child, again up to roughly six or so years of age, you ask them, “How do you do in school?” And they say, “I’m really good. I get mostly As and I get lots of stars on my papers.” But if you ask the teacher they have a different answer: “About a B student. Sometimes gets a star.”

And what you see is this initial escalation in being positive, and then this starts to become more realistic. The child’s own view of themselves comes more in line with reality.

So we were asking the question: are children optimists or realists? Because all of the previous work didn’t really look at optimism. It looked only at positivity about self. How about applying these kinds of things to different likelihoods of expectations out there in the real world?
Now you might wonder, can kids even do that? What about if kids can’t do the math? You can’t give them these complicated math problems like, “eight out of 1000” or “three out of 27 people are likely to get…” you know, whatever these things are, and expect them to weigh that in. But, in fact, babies already by the end of the first year of life are really good at doing these kinds of mental statistics and evaluating likelihood of probabilities.

Here’s one example but there are many, many that I could play for you. This comes from my colleague Fei Xu at Berkeley who looks at probabilistic reasoning in babies. And here is a test that was just looking at whether babies have any expectation about what sample should come out of whatever the sample they’re presented with is, and whether they show surprise or not, given what that is.

So if you show them a box full of balls—in this case there are three different colors of balls and there’s about a third of each color—and you choose a random sample, you would predict, as an adult, that roughly one-third of the time you should get each ball color. That’s not the sample that came out in this case. And so what you can do is see whether babies are surprised that that sample was withdrawn from there or whether they just don’t pay any attention, notice any difference to whether the expected sample has come out. And, in fact, what they do is, they’re pretty surprised when the sample doesn’t match the population from which it was drawn. And we have collected data with 158 kids so far from a very wide range of sample of children in the St. Louis area where I live. These are kids of different racial and ethnic backgrounds coming from different economic populations.

So one last task I want to tell you about for this set is looking at how children view people who are optimistic versus pessimistic. Kids are much more likely to choose the optimistic person, not just the optimistic outcome. They wanted to be friends with the person that had the positive response, and this often happened even in the face of accuracy. So we’re looking at this now too for learning and who they might rather learn from — an optimistic person or a correct person?
And this is another field that’s had a lot of attention recently in developmental psychology, that children really like to learn from and, in fact, like better, people who are reliable. So we’re looking at how liking optimism and wanting to learn from someone who’s optimistic has to reconcile with learning from somebody who is accurate and realistic in that sense, because we do want to make proper sense of the world. What I want you to take home from that though too is that children already, in the first few years of life, do seem to have a propensity for optimistic viewing of things. They tend to be optimistic, and we might be able to learn something by seeing that children are making the same sort of mistakes or having the same kinds of biases as adults. We might be able to learn something about the trajectory of this and get some insight into how we as adults got the way we are.

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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