Tali Sharot is a rising star at U.C.L.'s department of Cognitive, Perceptual and Brain Sciences. Her book 'The Optimism Bias' came out to great interest and rave reviews. Subtitled "a tour of the irrationally positive brain," Sharot's talk at The Southbank Centre on 15 February, was a tour of a tour. Nicole Fordham Hodges went along for the ride.
Tali Sharot was playful, engaging and light on her feet, as she led us around the scientific territory of hope, depression and expectation. Questions were lively and engaged: if a little sceptical. Brits do like to think of themselves, as Sharot said, as "a little bit miserable."
Yet Sharot's research shows that eighty percent of us are optimists. We expect things to turn out better than they do. We underestimate our chances of getting cancer or getting divorced. Even when told the statistics, we think they somehow don't apply to us. We don't even become more pessimistic with age. In spite of failed marriage, failed health or not getting that novel published, we remain "wired for hope."
Studies show that our imaginings of good futures are brighter and more vivid than negative outcomes. The more optimistic a person is, the more activity is found in two regions of the brain ( the amygdala and the rostral anterior cingulate cortex). These same two areas show abnormal activity in people with depression.
Sharot writes: "While healthy people expect the future to be slightly better than it ends up being, people with severe depression tend to be pessimistically biased: they expect things to be worse than they end up being. People with mild depression are relatively accurate when predicting future events. They see the world as it is. In other words, in the absence of a neural network that generates unrealistic optimism, it is possible all humans would be mildly depressed."
She suggests that our optimism evolved alongside our consciousness of ourselves, hence of our own mortality: "The knowledge of death had to emerge at the same time as irrational denial... it is this coupling... that underlies the extraordinary achievements of the human species."
Optimists view the world falsely. Yet they are statistically healthier, live longer and are more successful. They look for the 'silver lining' of negative experiences, reframing them to turn lead into gold. Our culture does this too, seeking out and valuing stories of 'triumph over tragedy.' As Sharot asks: "Why is being a cancer survivor better than winning the Tour de France?"
The science is new, yet many of Sharot's findings seem intuitively obvious. Optimism evolved so we'd survive. It digs us out of our sorrow, keeps us minding the gap on our commute to work. There are risks too. Sharot suggests we compensate for our optimism bias when setting budgets or making health decisions.
My discomfort around the idea of optimism may be about the shallowness or inappropriateness of the things for which we wish. I'd like to value the lead as well as the gold. Don't we need a percentage of people who will hover on the border between optimism and depression? They carry for us not only realism, but insight, empathy and the bitter sweet. Sunshine against storm clouds: when you lost what you thought you wanted and got what you didn't think you wanted. Now you're not sure. But, hold on! Aren't I just taking my own unexpectedly bittersweet life, and reframing it in a positive light?
Find out more about 'The Optimism Bias: a tour of the irrationally positive brain' by Tali Sharot at http://theoptimismbias.com