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The Optimism Bias – How Your Brain is Keeping You Alive in Crazy Times

If you’re familiar with the work of humorist and author Garrison Keillor, you’re probably familiar with his mythical creation, Lake Wobegon, “where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above-average.” It turns out that the residents of this little town aren’t the only ones who see the world through “rose-colored glasses.” When it comes to our personal lives and our local communities, we all do.

We are hard-wired for optimism

A Google search for “optimism” will almost immediately retrieve info on neuroscientist Tali Sharot. She studies  “The Optimism Bias.” Sharot and others have found evidence that our brains are hard-wired to make optimistic predictions about our futures, even when the hard facts before us would indicate the contrary.

Optimism persists, even in trying times

You might find this idea counter-intuitive, given all the crazy things that are happening in the world today. How could anyone be an optimist in the face of climate change, political instability, the rise of racism and a terrifying lack of critical thinking skills in our world leaders and their followers? It depends on the lens you use.

Economists Max Roser and Mohamed Nagdy have been studying the data, is what they see.

  • When asked about their predictions for the future of the economy as a whole, people tend to be fairly realistic, tracking their predictions with the current state of the economy.
  • When asked about their own economic future, people tend to be optimistic, regardless of the state of the economy.

Source: European Union Commission on Public Opinion

Your brain on optimism

Thanks to neuroimaging, scientists have identified the source of optimism, the caudate nucleus. This cluster of nerve cells that tells the rest of the brain when something good is about to happen. Remember Pavlov’s dogs? He expected his subjects to begin salivating at the sight of dinner, but he learned that the response starts even sooner. The dogs came to recognize the sound of the footsteps made by the person coming to feed them. Their brains had been wired to expect a very pleasurable event (dinner time). When these cells are communicating with other parts of the brain, we start to envision a positive future event.

Does optimism improve health or performance?

Most studies indicate that having a positive outlook on life correlates with better health and greater achievement in life. For example, college students whose thoughts were “seeded” with positive descriptions of their own abilities performed better on tests than those were given negative images of their own performance. Or consider a recent article called “The Price of Pessimism,” in which Men’s Health magazine listed multiple medical issues that can be caused or exacerbated by chronic pessimism—or minimized through optimism. Dr. Carol Dweck has studied thousands of subjects and identified the power of what she calls The Growth Mindset to influence performance.

As Dawkins convincingly states, our brains are survival machines, evolving the way they have precisely because they are very efficient at one critical task—keeping us alive. Perhaps having an optimistic outlook makes us more likely to survive. After all, optimism enables the brain to look ahead and imagine a future. It also makes us brave enough to explore or take a risk, expecting a positive result even when there is little reason to expect such an outcome. Without these life skills and cognitive strategies, our ancestors might have perished.

Not so fast, optimists!

But just when it seemed that we had a clear imperative: be optimistic or die too soon, a new study reveals that the opposite may be true. Adults over 65 who predicted a positive outlook for their future health tended to die sooner than those who expected their health to decline. Apparently, the optimists were less likely to change unhealthy habits because they didn’t accept their doctor’s dire warnings.



Hmm! I guess we need to keep studying how the human brain, the most complex object known, creates, sustains and changes its wiring in the face of new information. I’m sure neuroscience will come up with new insights soon.

Why do I say that? Is it just my unrealistically optimistic brain, spinning a vision of a more positive future than reason should allow? Or is it my relentlessly surviving brain, keeping me safe by giving me hope?

Margie Meacham


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