The Optimism Bias (2011)

Tali Sharota, The Optimism Bias (Pantheon 2011).

I have little regard for the sort of psychology research that puts 18 malnourished hung-over undergraduates in a room, gives them a test, then claims the results to be ‘science’. So I was rather sceptical when I first heard about ‘optimism bias’, an umbrella term that Tali Sharota deployed a few years back in the best-selling popular psychology book The Optimism Bias (Pantheon 2011).

Yet there is indeed some kind of measurable personal ‘probability bias’. This fact emerges from Sharot’s more robust studies, which asked her test subjects about the “likelihood of experiencing 80 adverse life events”. Specifically she asked them for a “correct average probability” estimate for something happening in the future. In such lab tests adults tend to underestimate the statistical chances of becoming ill, being in a traffic accident, staying married in a stressful world, and more. Now I would say that is partly because people are really really bad at estimating statistical probabilities about future outcomes. Bad at maths in general, in fact. Not to mention bad at visualising hypothetical future events. But it does seem telling that we always err on the side of low probabilities in short-term personal matters, especially as this effect is persistent across cultures (though Japan is much more pessimistic than we are) and personality types. Such apparent universalism does seem to confirm Sharot’s core assertion.

So presumably this ‘probability bias’ has survived in evolution to help us get things done. And to keep trying to get things done. For instance: we hope to kill a wild boar piglet with a heavy rock. But our hunting band is ‘unexpectedly’ chased away by the adult boars, despite our great hopes. Yet we still feel optimistic, and are incidentally feeling rather more hungry than before. So we try harder next time. Eventually, if our lineage survives through time, someone will come up with the bright idea of lots of small rocks going really really fast, rather than one big heavy rock going slow. Thus, the slingshot is created. Suddenly it’s piglet steak every day around the camp-fire, and our tendency toward a mild personal optimism is everywhere in our descendants.

So it makes sense to have hunters (and traders) who don’t calculate event probability very well, even if they had the brainpower and techniques to be able to quantify it. The same impulse would carry through to the rallying of warriors to a battle muster, or traders to a big seasonal market. In the modern world it helps people start businesses, or work on a large and somewhat risky business project. Scientists and creatives are ever-optimistic that they will eventually crack a thorny problem and open up a new frontier. That kind of irrational optimism is oil on the pistons of civilisation.

So far, so good. Then we come to ‘superiority bias’, another psychology term that Sharot addresses under the banner of ‘optimism’. Meaning that most of us casually think ourselves a bit more attractive and intelligent than we really are. The same goes for our estimate of the looks and intelligence of our young children. But this bias has more to do with the biological impetus for finding a mate and nurturing young kids, than about future events. It may unconsciously play into our life choices on a day-to-day basis, but it’s not quite fair to label it as ‘optimism’.

Both forms of bias are irrational, short-term, and personal. They are not always useful, and sometimes go to hideous extremes. Think of the middle-aged Lothario preening in front of a twenty-something in a nightclub; the reckless gambler destroying a family; or the woman who thinks that her ugly yappy little dog is utterly! beautiful! Yet we wouldn’t want to get rid of these biases, even if we could. Overall they are obviously just too useful for society.

Now the flipside of these traits is the wider human bias toward social pessimism, an overarching ‘meta’ bias which is negative and destructive and which persists even in the face of evidence. That bias is one of the things I’m interested in on this new blog. We grow up breathing in a pervasive miasma of bad news about our town, our region, the nation… and even our fluffy youthful optimism very soon shifts over to the fixed belief that society is going to hell in a handcart. This is obviously an irrational stance to take in the face of manifest progress, ongoing high levels of human co-operation and self-organisation, the lessons of history, and all the other factors that rational optimists point to. Which leads one to wonder: is this pessimism so ingrained because it helps us to support the more personal ‘optimism biases’ that I’ve discussed above?

That would be worrying, if it could be proved to be correct. It would mean that those engaging in cultivating a robust ‘rational optimism’ might then feel more ordinary, less confident in their choices, and would feel that they have less chance of avoiding harm in their personal and family lives. Yet logically that really shouldn’t be the case: hard evidence of ongoing progress at the wider social and civilisational level should show individuals that they have more chance to shine, more ability to differentiate themselves thorough trade and learning, that it gives them more means to make themselves even more attractive (from acne cream to wigs, from high heels to haircuts), and offers more proven means to defend themselves and their family from harm.