Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Why we fool ourselves into optimism

By Tali Sharot, Special to CNN
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Wed June 27, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • People tend not to anticipate the future perils that face them, Tali Sharot says
  • People are pessimistic about the world but are optimistic about their lives, she says
  • Sharot: Seeing the world through rose-tinted glasses is good for people's mental state
  • Believing that a goal is within reach motivates us to act to attain it, Sharot says

Editor's note: Tali Sharot, a faculty member of the Department of Cognitive, Perceptual and Brain Sciences at University College London, is the author of "The Optimism Bias: A Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brain." She spoke at the TED2012 conference in March. TED is a nonprofit dedicated to "ideas worth spreading," which it makes available through talks posted on its website.

(CNN) -- Close your eyes for a moment and imagine your life five years from now.

What sort of scenarios pop into your mind? How do you see yourself standing professionally? What is the quality of your personal life and relationships?

Though each of us may define "happiness" in different ways, it remains the case that we are inclined to see ourselves motoring happily toward professional success, fulfilling relationships, financial security and stable health. Unemployment, debt, Alzheimer's, any number of other regrettably common misfortunes are rarely factored into our projections.

Watch Tali Sharot's TED Talk

Are we wired to be optimistic?

According to most estimates, 80% of the population hold unrealistic, optimistic beliefs about their own future. However, ask people whether the economy is going in the right direction or how they feel about the future of their country, and you will hear: "absolutely not" and "going down the drain."

TED.com: Dan Gilbert on our mistaken expectations

Collectively we are quite pessimistic about the direction of our nation or the ability of our leaders to improve education and reduce crime. But private optimism, about our personal future, remains incredibly resilient.

Surveys show that most people overestimate their prospects for personal achievement, expect their children to be extraordinarily gifted and hugely underestimate their likelihood of divorce and cancer.

Underestimating the pain and difficulties the future undoubtedly holds lowers stress and anxiety.
Tali Sharot

What always puzzled me was how we manage to maintain optimism in the face of reality. We experience failure and heartache, we read the newspaper -- we know the economy is unstable, but still we remain optimistic about our own odds.

As a neuroscientist I found this especially surprising, because according to all classic theories of learning when expectations are not met, we alter them. This should eventually lead to realism, not optimism.

By scanning the brains of people while they learned from positive and negative information about the future we uncovered a possible answer to this puzzle. Surprisingly, when people learn of what the future may hold, their brains faithfully encode desirable information that can enhance optimism, but fail at incorporating unexpectedly bad information. (My fellow scientists and I were able to alter this tendency using transcranial magnetic stimulation -- watch the TED talk to see how.)

When we learn of Oprah Winfrey's success story, our brain takes note and concludes that maybe, we too may become immensely rich one day. But when told the odds of divorce are almost 1 in 2 we take no notice.

This means that warning signs such as those on cigarette packets may only have limited impact. "Yes, smoking kills -- but mostly it kills the other guy." But at the same when we hear the housing market is going up we think -- "ohhhh the value of my house is going to double."

TED.com: Helen Fisher studies the brain in love

In fact, economists have suggested that optimism was a root cause of the financial downfall of 2008. The optimism bias was not only blurring the vision of the private sector, but also of government officials, rating agencies and financial analysts who constantly expected the market to go up and up.

The belief that we are relatively immune to future harms can also put us at physical risk. Take for example an e-mail I received from a California firefighter who read my book about the optimism bias. He says fatality investigations involving firefighters often include statements to the effect of "We didn't think the fire was going to do that" even when all of the available information about risks was there to enable safe decisions.

The British government for one has decided to try to address these problems. As a first step, it has acknowledged that the optimism bias causes individuals to underestimate the cost and duration of projects.

Specific guidelines of how to correct for the optimism bias in appraisals were published in the British government's Green Book, which provides an overall methodology for economic assessment. Adjustments for the optimism bias have since been factored into the budget of many UK government projects, including most recently the 2012 London Olympics.

Despite all these potential pitfalls, the science of optimism clearly indicates that, on balance, viewing the world through rose-tinted glasses is a good thing. We now know that underestimating the pain and difficulties the future undoubtedly holds lowers stress and anxiety, consequently enhancing physical and mental health.

TED.com: Four lessons from robots about being human

Believing that a goal is within reach motivates us to act in a way that will help us attain it. This may, for instance, explain why optimists work longer hours and tend to earn more.

Yes, the 2012 London Olympics budget had to be adjusted to account for over-optimistic prediction, but if the human spirit were not optimistic, would there be anyone around to participate in the actual Games?

My guess is that the number of athletes who expect to win a medal at the Olympics significantly outnumbers the number of contestants who will mount the podium to be garlanded in due course. Most athletes subject themselves to years of intensive training because they can clearly envisage the end goal. At the end of the day, to make any kind of real progress we need to be able to imagine alternative realities -- better ones, and believe them to be possible.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Tali Sharot.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:28 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT