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The Science of Optimism: a Conversation on ‘The Optimism Bias’ with neuroscientist Tali Sharot

I like to think of myself as a pos­i­tive and opti­mistic per­son. It seems to me to make for an eas­i­er and more enjoy­able jour­ney through life. So I was intrigued when I read of neu­ro­sci­en­tist Tali Sharot’s research into the Opti­mism Bias, which has shown that despite all the bad news sto­ries we are bom­bard­ed with on a dai­ly basis: war, vio­lence, wrong-doing and finan­cial melt­down, the major­i­ty of us are opti­mistic by nature; our brains are hard­wired to be so. It’s a fas­ci­nat­ing con­cept and one I had to find out more about, so I bought the book and met with Tali in her office at Uni­ver­si­ty Col­lege Lon­don for an enthralling dis­cus­sion.

What is opti­mism?
First­ly, to set the con­text, some def­i­n­i­tions: Hope is what you want to hap­pen. Opti­mism is the belief that the out­come you hope for will hap­pen. The Opti­mism Bias is the over-pre­dic­tion of pos­i­tive out­comes. We are not aware of whether our hopes and pre­dic­tions are real­is­tic or not, it is a sub­con­scious process and is linked to our abil­i­ty to men­tal­ly imag­ine the future.

How does it work?
We expect out­comes to be bet­ter than they are like­ly to be in real­i­ty. As indi­vid­u­als we under­es­ti­mate our chances of get­ting divorced (per­haps oth­er­wise we would nev­er get mar­ried), or being diag­nosed with seri­ous ill­ness; where­as we expect our chil­dren to be super-tal­ent­ed and our careers to be more suc­cess­ful than our friends and peers. This clear­ly can­not be true of us all.

So what are the psy­cho­log­i­cal and phys­i­o­log­i­cal fac­tors which make this hap­pen?
Tali stum­bled into this area of research by acci­dent. Study­ing how emo­tion changes mem­o­ry, specif­i­cal­ly trau­mat­ic mem­o­ries such as in 9/11, it emerged that people’s mem­o­ries of these events were filled with errors and inac­cu­ra­cies. This is part­ly because the neur­al sys­tem involved in the process­es by which you remem­ber the past, are the same ones you use to imag­ine the future. It is designed to help us con­struct future sce­nar­ios in our mind, and so mem­o­ry ends up being a part­ly con­struct­ed process too.

Tali talks gen­er­al­ly about a self-ful­fill­ing prophe­cy attached to the Opti­mism Bias: “If you expect to do well, that moti­vates you to act so you put in more effort and more hours there­fore are more like­ly to suc­ceed. If you don’t think you are going to win the race, get the pro­mo­tion or beat the can­cer accord­ing­ly you put in less effort. Our pre­dic­tion of the future influ­ences our actions, which in turn deter­mine the out­come”.

Can the Opti­mism Bias be har­nessed in health­care?
When it comes to health pro­mo­tion and edu­ca­tion it is impor­tant to change the way we com­mu­ni­cate the haz­ard. Most aware­ness cam­paigns are ‘fear cam­paigns’; Don’t smoke: you will get lung can­cer. Don’t sit in the sun; you will get skin can­cer. Wear a cycle hel­met: if you don’t and you are in an acci­dent you will die, despite evi­dence show­ing that these cam­paigns have only min­i­mal impact.

This is the wrong approach because peo­ple dis­re­gard it. Smok­ers believe that smok­ing leads to lung can­cer but because of their Opti­mism Bias they don’t believe that they will get lung can­cer. How about rethink­ing the mes­sage? Why not put a pos­i­tive mes­sage on cig­a­rette pack­ets to har­ness the Opti­mism Bias , for exam­ple, ‘80% of peo­ple are able to kick the habit after 2 weeks of try­ing’, or more infor­ma­tive mes­sages such as ‘Vis­it this web­site to check your lung health’.

Sure­ly the same the­o­ry can be applied to mar­ket­ing approach­es too. If we can bet­ter align with our cus­tomers’ innate opti­mism then sure­ly they will bet­ter engage with our mes­sages and con­nect with our brands.

The down­side of see­ing the upside

I am some­times accused of being over­ly opti­mistic (heav­en for­bid!). Accord­ing to Tali this can cause issues at both an indi­vid­ual and soci­etal lev­el.

Econ­o­mists part­ly attribute the 2008 finan­cial crash to the Opti­mism Bias with­in dif­fer­ent stake­hold­er groups in the glob­al finan­cial mar­ket, includ­ing investors, ana­lysts and gov­ern­ment offi­cials. When Opti­mism Bias­es from mul­ti­ple sources come togeth­er, that can be dan­ger­ous and as in the finan­cial sec­tor, have explo­sive con­se­quences.

When fore­cast­ing future results and sce­nar­ios we can be over­ly opti­mistic, and group-think­ing can fur­ther add to the bias. How do you pre­vent this from hap­pen­ing? Aware­ness of the Opti­mism Bias is the first step. It enables you to make cor­rec­tions. If you have a proxy you can review pre­vi­ous fore­casts to get a pic­ture of the lev­el of inher­ent bias in your organ­i­sa­tion. The UK Trea­sury Department’s guid­ance rec­om­mends that bud­gets for major projects include a con­tin­gency to allow for Opti­mism Bias; they coun­ter­act the ten­den­cy for project costs to be under­es­ti­mat­ed, rang­ing from 10 to 23.5%. Lon­don 2012 Olympic plan­ning includ­ed an opti­mism for­mu­la to help guide their plan­ning pre­dic­tions.

On an indi­vid­ual lev­el we should beware too. Over­ly pos­i­tive assump­tions can lead to ter­ri­ble deci­sion mak­ing. Extreme opti­mists do not believe that neg­a­tive events will hap­pen to them. It makes them less like­ly to get health check-ups or apply sun cream, and more like­ly to engage in risky behav­iours and activ­i­ties such as smok­ing and drink­ing and they can make bad, high risk invest­ment deci­sions. Con­se­quent­ly, although mild opti­mists live longer, extreme opti­mists do not. It is a fine line to tread.

In con­clu­sion
There is grow­ing evi­dence that opti­mism may be hard-wired into our minds, and impacts all of our behav­iours. Our brains aren’t just shaped by past events; they are dri­ven by our hopes for the future. Fur­ther under­stand­ing of the impact and process­es of the Opti­mism Bias could be har­nessed in many fields includ­ing health­care, psy­chol­o­gy, behav­iour change and mar­ket­ing strat­e­gy, and that leaves me feel­ing rather opti­mistic.

David Coleiro is a found­ing part­ner at www.strategicnorth.com, and this inter­view is an extract from the book Strate­gic Tales by Strate­gic North. To request your free copy please email them at info@strategicnorth.com.

For more infor­ma­tion on Tali Sharot and her work vis­it www.theoptimismbias.com

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