While there may be the occasional day where it seems nothing is going right, humans as a whole seem to be persistently unrealistically optimistic. Despite receiving information that may contradict their positive outlook, people fail to let this have any impact on their expectations. A common example of such behaviour would be the disregard for the health warnings associated with smoking, with a large number of the population still underestimating their vulnerability for related illnesses under the premise that ‘it won’t happen to me’. While such optimism may result in some individuals putting themselves at risk, there is an upside: optimism is known to lower stress and anxiety and thus improve health and wellbeing.
Evidence suggests that the process of learning from information that disconfirms expectations is controlled by the brain regions involved in the processing of errors and detecting conflict. A recent study by Sharot et al. (2011), investigated whether the failure to change optimistic viewpoint when presented with contradicting information was mediated by this error processing system, and in particular, wanted to relate it to the underestimation of future negative events. Interestingly, they found that the participants in their study learned more from desirable information, which would allow them to adopt more optimistic expectations than from information which challenged their outlook.
Any undesirable information about the future had reduced coding in a region of the frontal cortex. The participants who had been scored as having a high optimism trait were worse at tracking undesirable errors (information that contradicted the optimistic viewpoint) in this brain area than those who had a lower scoring optimism trait. In fact, they found that there was hemispheric asymmetry in processing positive and negative information, with an area in the left hemisphere tracking desirable errors and an area in the right undesirable errors.
The ability to underestimate your susceptibility to negative events can be adaptive, as it prevents you from becoming stressed and anxious; enhancing your ability to cope with the potential negative event. This is related to the negative outlook seen in those with depression, who may be unable to adapt their pessimistic viewpoint towards themselves and the future due to an inability to process more positive information. The study suggests that our human predisposition for optimism is created by the brain’s failure at picking up errors in estimation when presented with pessimistic updates. The resulting selective updating supports unrealistic optimism which is difficult to change.
Sharot. T., Korn. C.W. & Dolan. R. (2011) How unrealistic optimism is maintained in the face of reality. Nature Neuroscience. 14, 1475-1479
Image credit- Kirsty Matthews