Brain imaging reveals why we remain optimistic in the face of reality

October 9, 2011

For some people, the glass is always half full. Even when a football fan's team has lost ten matches in a row, he might still be convinced his team can reverse its run of bad luck. So why, in the face of clear evidence to suggest to the contrary, do some people remain so optimistic about the future?

In a study published today in , researchers at the Wellcome Trust Centre for at UCL (University College London) show 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. This is related to 'faulty' function of their frontal lobes.

People's predictions of the future are often unrealistically optimistic. A problem that has puzzled scientists for decades is why human optimism is so pervasive, when reality continuously confronts us with information that challenges these biased beliefs.

"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 practising safe sex or saving for retirement. So why don't we learn from cautionary information?"

See Laughing in the Face of Reality (The Science of Optimism)

In this new study, Dr Sharot and Professor Ray Dolan from the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging, together with Christoph Korn from the Berlin School of Mind and Brain have shown 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.

Nineteen volunteers were presented with a series of negative life events, such as car theft or Parkinson's disease, whilst lying in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner, which measures activity in the brain. 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 eighty 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%, but the average likelihood was 30%, they might adjust their estimate to 32%. If the information was worse than expected – for example, if they had estimated 10% – 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 to the contrary."

'Understanding the brain' is one of the Wellcome Trust's key strategic challenges. At the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging, clinicians and scientists study higher cognitive function to understand how thought and perception arise from brain activity, and how such processes break down in neurological and psychiatric disease.

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."

Explore further: Scientists can now 'see' how different parts of our brain communicate

More information: Tali Sharot, Christoph Korn & Raymond Dolan. How unrealistic optimism is maintained in the face of reality. Nature Neuroscience; e-pub 9 October 2011.

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8 comments

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hush1
4 / 5 (1) Oct 09, 2011
lol
Well Tali, Ray and Chris.
'Simply' make sure all societies provide the most sufficient, most accurate, objective and complete information possible.
Remove as much guesswork and bias out of information as possible.
And...
no more secrets.
Or make us choose between lies. That always works. Doesn't that sound optimistic? lol
tarheelchief
not rated yet Oct 09, 2011
Being omnivores,humans can adjust unlike other animals who do not have our digestive system.Unless you are a roach which can survive nuclear bomb attacks, there are few animals who can bob and weave around most disasters. Starting as a weak,naked ape somewhere in Africa,we have expanded until few if any plant or animal does not live in fear of being the next thing on our plate.
beau2am
not rated yet Oct 09, 2011
Ah, sweet sweet Radical Honesty, bringing people back to reality by breaking their illusions! ;)

Time to read the book! :P
RobertKarlStonjek
not rated yet Oct 09, 2011
'Understanding the brain' is one of the Wellcome Trust's key strategic challenges.

I'm sure they'll solve all the brain's challenges...
georgesoros
1.7 / 5 (6) Oct 09, 2011
What this article is saying is that people are stupid and narrow minded. For everything that people observe in the real world they fit it into their pre-existing perceptions of the world. This is why people believe such stupid things as religion
OverweightAmerican
1.8 / 5 (5) Oct 10, 2011
I agree with George, people believe the most stupid things. Even with the overwhelming evidence against religion people still believe it. It's ridiculous.
hush1
not rated yet Oct 10, 2011
Remember?
http://www.physor...ogy.html

"Perfecting our knowledge of how to achieve this state should be a primary aim of the science of science communication."

http://papers.ssr...=1871503

Isaacsname
not rated yet Oct 10, 2011
My glass is always full of a quantitatively changing ratio of different gases and an aqueous vapor to boot. I'm ahead of the game.

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