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I’ve pointed before to a serie of articles written by Daniel Kahneman where he identifies the optimistic bias as “the most significant bias”. Kahneman conveys this vision of the optimistic bias because in his opinion people who are optimists tend to shape the lives of everyone as they are the ones who take more risks or are more entrepreneurial. In the first of these articles, Kahneman goes so far as to state:

If you are genetically endowed with an optimistic bias, you hardly need to be told that you are a lucky person – you already feel fortunate.

While there isn’t – so far as I know – any study that tried to unlock an “optimistic gene”, a recent research as uncovered interesting insights about the brain mechanisms behind optimistic behavior as quoted on the BPS Research Digest:

Now Tali Sharot (author of the forthcoming book The Optimism Bias) and her colleagues have investigated the brain mechanisms underlying this rosy outlook. Sharot had participants estimate their likelihood of experiencing 80 adverse life events from developing Alzheimer’s to being robbed. After they gave each estimate, the participants were given the correct average probability for a person in their socio-economic circumstances. In a subsequent testing session, participants had a second chance to forecast their risk of experiencing the same 80 misfortunes. Throughout this process, Sharot scanned the activity of the participants’ brains.

One key finding is that the participants showed a bias in the way that they updated their estimates, being much more likely to revise an original estimate that was overly pessimistic than to revise an original estimate that was unduly optimistic (79 per cent of participants showed this pattern). The researchers checked and this difference wasn’t to do with the positive feedback being remembered better, but purely to do with it being taken account of more than negative feedback.

There were some intriguing neural insights. Discovering that an initial estimate was unduly pessimistic was associated with increased activity across the frontal lobes, in left inferior frontal gyrus, left and right medial frontal cortex/superior frontal gyrus, and also in the right cerebellum – and this increased activity correlated with the participants’ subsequent updating of their estimate in the second round of predictions. By contrast, discovering that they’d been overly optimistic was associated with reduced activity in the inferior frontal gyrus extending into precentral gyrus and insula, and again this activity change was related to the likelihood that the participants would revise their estimate in the second round of predictions.

As the researchers point, a possible evolutionary explanation for this is linked to the necessity of early humans to have an enhanced exploratory behavior, which may have been essential to finding new food resources or better habitats. However, without a realistic assessment of probabilities, an unrestrained optimistic view of the world can lead to dire consequences; for the optimists, but also for all those whose lives are influenced by them.

You can read the BPS Research Digest here.