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Hardwired To Be Optimistic

You know the type and you may be one yourself – individuals who display insatiable optimism even against overwhelming odds. A new research study examined why some people remain optimistic despite clear evidence to the contrary.

Investigators at the University College London discovered that people who are very optimistic about the outcome of events tend to learn only from information that reinforces their rose-tinted view of the world.

Experts say this trait is related to ‘faulty’ function of their frontal lobes.

The researchers wanted to learn why human optimism is so seemingly pervasive, when reality continuously confronts us with information that challenges these biased beliefs. Why do people often seem to have unrealistically optimistic predictions for their future?

“Seeing the glass as half full rather than half empty can be a positive thing — it can lower stress and anxiety and be good for our health and well-being,” explains Dr. Tali Sharot.

“But it can also mean that we are less likely to take precautionary action, such as practicing safe sex or saving for retirement. So why don’t we learn from cautionary information?”

In this new study, researchers discover that our failure to alter optimistic predictions when presented with conflicting information is due to errors in how we process the information in our brains.

In the study, 19 volunteers were presented with a series of negative life events, such as car theft or Parkinson’s disease, while they were lying in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner.

They were asked to estimate the probability that this event would happen to them in the future. After a short pause, the volunteers were told the average probability of this event to occur. In total, the participants saw 80 such events.

After the scanning sessions, the participants were asked once again to estimate the probability of each event occurring to them. They were also asked to fill in a questionnaire measuring their level of optimism.

The researchers found that people did, in fact, update their estimates based on the information given, but only if the information was better than expected.

For example, if they had predicted that their likelihood of suffering from cancer was 40 percent, but the average likelihood was 30 percent, they might adjust their estimate to 32 percent. If the information was worse than expected – for example, if they had estimated 10 percent – then they tended to adjust their estimate much less, as if ignoring the data.

The results of the brain scans suggested why this might be the case. All participants showed increased activity in the frontal lobes of the brain when the information given was better than expected. This activity actively processed the information to recalculate an estimate.

However, when the information was worse than estimated, the more optimistic a participant was (according to the personality questionnaire), the less efficiently activity in these frontal regions coded for it, suggesting they were disregarding the evidence presented to them.

Dr. Sharot adds: “Our study suggests that we pick and choose the information that we listen to. The more optimistic we are, the less likely we are to be influenced by negative information about the future.

“This can have benefits for our mental health, but there are obvious downsides. Many experts believe the financial crisis in 2008 was precipitated by analysts overestimating the performance of their assets even in the face of clear evidence to the contrary.”

Commenting on the study, Dr. John Williams, Head of Neuroscience and Mental Health at the Wellcome Trust, said: “Being optimistic must clearly have some benefits, but is it always helpful and why do some people have a less rosy outlook on life?

“Understanding how some people always manage to remain optimistic could provide useful insights into happens when our brains do not function properly.”

The study was conducted at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging and was published in the journal Nature Neuroscience.

Source: Wellcome Trust

Hardwired To Be Optimistic

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). Hardwired To Be Optimistic. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 5, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 10 Oct 2011)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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