A Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brain

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Neuroscientist Tali Sharot looks at the human brain’s tendency toward optimism. Psychologists have long been aware that most people maintain an often irrationally positive outlook on life. In fact, optimism may be crucial to our existence. The Optimism Bias: A Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brain looks at experiments, research, and findings in cognitive science that help explain the biological basis of optimism. Sharot examines how the brain generates hope and what happens when it fails.


Tali Sharot

Comments [21]

Katie Logre

It seems like the host was more knowledgeable than the guest, who just comes off as a Dan Gilbert intern. Very amateurish. Unimpressed.

Jun. 25 2011 02:24 PM

this is great, in the right situational context. ie. when there is a need for an emotional pick me up,after, or during tragedy. however,this quality is quite detrimental,when used as a long term life strategy,that is deployed as an opiate, to mask and blind people from taking steps within their power to improve their situation in life.

Jun. 21 2011 01:45 PM
Andy from UK

@ HughSansom, I think what you're talking about isn't covered in the affect/setpoint literature, goal theories look at it though.

Jun. 21 2011 12:45 PM
Orla from Manhattan

Ques: how can we cultivate a sense of control (to feel more optimistic)?

Jun. 21 2011 12:44 PM
Amy from Manhattan

Half full? Half empty? What if I just see half a glass of water?

Jun. 21 2011 12:43 PM

Materialism and Reductionism are TWO DIFFERENT things! Why is this so hard for 'scientists' to understand. Again -- check out Richard Lewontin, Stephen Jay Gould and philosophers Philip Kitcher, Richard Boyd, Paul Churchland, Hilary Putnam and dozens of others.

The standard scientist response to a comment like mine? "But that's just philosophy."

A very scientific response -- dismissing material that doesn't fit the dogma.

Jun. 21 2011 12:42 PM
Larry from Williamsburg

To those worried about free will: the brain is determined by our experiences and choices as much as it causes them. When something is seen to happen in the brain, that does not mean it is determinative- it could be responsive. Brain (and any biological entity) is NOT determined by genes. It is the outcome of genes and experience.

Jun. 21 2011 12:42 PM

A child works at her studies, finds the work fairly easy. She does reasonably well.

If she is told she's smart, she comes to associate "smart" with "easy" and will subsequently gravitate toward tasks she finds easy.

If she is told she worked hard, she will continue to work hard, whether the task is easy or not.

The second way or responding to child effort is well-documented as a better way to encourage further effort.

Two kinds of optimism? An observation the current cult of neuropsychology just dismisses?

Jun. 21 2011 12:38 PM

Leonard Lopate should do a show on the current problem of the Dogma of the Attractive Scientist Effect (DASE). Tali Sharot joins a coterie of scientists adored by popular media (expecially PBS's Nature, National Geographic, etc.) -- all women, all comparatively young and attractive.

Jun. 21 2011 12:38 PM
Andy from UK

The guest completely ignored talking about defensive optimism question someone on facebook just asked about.

Jun. 21 2011 12:37 PM
Sue from Long Island

Does the optimism bias apply to people with autism? If so, how?

My daughter, for example, has an extraordinary memory, but displays little understanding of the concept of future events.

Jun. 21 2011 12:35 PM
HC from Brooklyn

How does your guest account for freedom? It sounds like this theory is based on the idea of pure determinism.

It also seems to ignore any idea of the unconscious, for example is there some kind of economy of pessimism and optimism, in which what is expressed as optimism reveals an unconscious pessimism?

Jun. 21 2011 12:33 PM
Caesar from brooklyn

as it relates to people who are trapped in bad situations – war, longtime unemployment, chronically ill, jail, etc.– is there anything that suggest how positive thinking, optimism and confidence helps. i have been unemployed for 2.5 years and while i was optimistic at first that i'd get back on my feet, today i find myself petrified with financial doom. am i fooling myself when i think optimistically?

Jun. 21 2011 12:29 PM
Bernard from Brinx

What is the difference between optimism and hope?

Jun. 21 2011 12:27 PM
Andy from UK

This is off the top of my head.

Fiedler et al., K. Fiedler, U. Fladung and U. Hemmeter, (1987). A positivity bias in person memory, Journal of Social Psychology 17 (1987), pp. 243–246.

Cacioppo, J. T., Gardner, W. L., & Berntson, G. G. (1997). Beyond bipolar conceptualizations and measures: The case of attitudes and evaluative space. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 1, 3-25.

Lyubomirsky, S., King, L., & Diener, E. (2006). The benefits of frequent positive affect: Does happiness lead to success? Psychological Bulletin, 131, 803-855.

Wilson, Timothy D.; Daniel T. Gilbert (2003). "Affective Forecasting". In Mark P. Zanna. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology. 35. Academic Press. pp. 380.

Jun. 21 2011 12:25 PM
HC from Brooklyn

Also, this is based on what people express not necessarily how they feel. It might very well be that the positive expression is based on a much more profound pessimism.

Jun. 21 2011 12:24 PM

The claims regarding evolution of ways of thinking is grossly speculative. It would be great to have the great biologist Richard Lewontin or his colleague E. O. Wilson to debunk the current fetish for "evolutionary psychology." Wilson -- with a candor extraordinarily rare among scientists -- that human sociobiology is false. The human genome is simply _too small_. (Their late colleague, Stephen Jay Gould, would also have been great on this.)

Whether such dogma is central to Tali Sharot's claims is unclear to me. She seems to be making some references to evolutionary psychology. If so, her claims are severely undermined.

If history is any guide, it will take decades for the behavioral sciences to catch up to what is now established fact in biology (plenty of biologists still haven't figured this one out). (For example, economists are still obsessed with physics for no good reason.)

Jun. 21 2011 12:23 PM
Andy from UK

Jun. 21 2011 12:22 PM
HC from Brooklyn

Isn't this theory of optimism itself very pessimistic? Which is to say, the idea that hope is based on an illusion.

This theory seems to place optimism on the side of illusion and pessimism on the side of reality.

Doesn't this also lead to a sort of apathetic relativism, that in a sense the "trick" of the mind is a kind of universal pathology and that if we are in a situation which is traumatic it is only because that is the reality of the situation and we should go back to our naive positivism?

Jun. 21 2011 12:22 PM
henry from Somerset, NJ

Memory of traumatic events: aren't they in a class by themselves as far as accuracy?

Jun. 21 2011 12:20 PM
Andy from UK

This research is literally 15 years old.

Jun. 21 2011 12:09 PM

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