The biology of pessimism

A new New Scientist editorial article “How your biology could overrule you when voting” ($ free) seems relevant to understanding the prevalence and uneven distribution of pessimism in society…

“Research in the past few years, using information on brain structure and function from MRI scans, physiological responses, eye-trackers and behavioural genetics, shows that individual political orientations are deeply connected to biological forces that are usually beyond personal control” [and so] “sudden environmentally mediated shifts of biological predisposition that are strong enough to alter the electoral fortunes of populist parties in multiple societies seem unlikely.”

“Humans have a well-established and potent negativity bias; we subconsciously respond more and pay more attention to negative than to positive events. […] It is also well established that individuals vary in their degree of response to negative stimuli. Physiologically speaking, some react nearly as strongly to positive as to negative stimuli; others much more strongly to negative.” (My emphasis)

Firstly, I’m sceptical of psychology ‘findings’ that rest on testing a small number of hungover and malnourished undergraduate students, without any replication of results. I’m also made sceptical by the implicitly ideological timing of the publicity for this, with the political left in electoral crisis around the world. In such a climate there’s a risk that the old get-out explanation for the left’s deep failures is to be switched from the old ‘false consciousness’ of voters to the new ‘false biology’ of voters. Nothing to do with the left throwing up horrible dictators, aligning itself with evil regimes, continually eroding everything from civil liberties to economic stability, and just being factually wrong on so many matters. Such a biological explanation also helps to tar the left’s political enemies with the old accusation that anyone to the right of the dead centre of politics is somehow brutish, driven by primitive and dangerous impulses that more enlightened people have long since sloughed off. Such beliefs absolve the left from having to consider the deep damage their own supposedly ‘enlightened’ policies do to individuals, communities and nations.

But, assuming that the above psychology findings are valid, then the further question is: are there demographic markers to be discerned within the distribution of this strong pessimism bias, in and across populations, genders and age groups? Precisely where does optimism emerge most strongly, in and across populations?