Surviving Optimism

Certain members of my family (who shall remain nameless) always accuse me of being “pessimistic,” while I believe I’m simply a realist. Well, according to neuro-imaging researcher Tali Sharot, author of a new book called “The Optimism Bias: A Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brain,” discussed in the New York Times today, most human beings inaccurately predict most outcomes in life because our brains are hard wired to be unrealistically optimistic. I haven’t read Dr. Sharot’s book yet, but I suspect this may have something to do with the fact that in order to live our lives we have to psychologically and neurologically set aside the existentially depressing fact that we’re all going to end up as wormfood. In any case, our neurons efficiently encode unexpectedly good information, but fail to incorporate information that is unexpectedly bad. For example most people believe they will be highly successful when the odds are against that outcome. Underestimating risk also makes us less likely to practice safe sex, save for retirement, buy insurance, or undergo medical screenings. It is of course not surprising that those of us who realistically predict outcomes tend to be mildly depressed.

I’m wondering how this relates to my own clinical observation that the experience of actual trauma seems to subsume the optimism bias in making the traumatized more emotionally reactive, and more often than not changes the worldview of the traumatized toward a more pessimistic, anxiety-ridden, depressed view of the future. Or is this altered view that traumatized people exhibit merely realistic, a kind of adjustment to the “natural” optimism bias? Given the growing amount of trauma in the world, this seems to me like an important issue that may affect our ability to move forward as a species.

What do you think?

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