The Optimism Bias

Tali Sharot studies optimism. Actually, not just optimism in general, but the penchant most of us have for being unrealistically optimistic about our futures, our prospects, our health, our children and so on, while being similarly pessimistic about others’ chances.

I guess that makes sense. If we know enough about the law of averages to realize not everyone can be happy, healthy, and successful, and if we believe we will be, then it stands to reason that others will not.

As it turns out, this “optimism bias” is incredibly helpful – it invites us to take risks and invest in the future (who would get married if we took seriously the 40% likelihood that our marriage would end in divorce), it promotes good health (a positive frame of mind is extraordinary advantageous health-wise), and promotes happiness (it turns out that, contrary to popular wisdom, high expectations, rather than low ones, are likely to promote happiness).

But there are also downsides. We underestimate risk, are often unprepared for set backs, and sometimes avoid simple precautionary actions that could have greatly helped us overcome challenges. So is there a way to reap the benefits of our optimism bias for ourselves, our families, and our congregations without suffering the setbacks? Indeed there is, and Tali Sharot helps us discover how.

Sharot, who has studied the neurological origins of optimism for years, teaches in the Department of Cognitive, Perceptual, and Brain Sciences at the University College, London. She is the author of The Optimism Bias: A Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brain (Vintage).

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