Research published in the journal Nature reveals that most humans have what’s called a “pervasive optimism bias.” In other words, most of us are naturally (and arguably illogically) optimistic about things in life. This is in spite of the fact that the evidence suggests otherwise.
For example, roughly 40 to 50 percent of married couples living in the United States will get divorced. However, most people remain optimistic that they will not become just another statistic, although the facts suggest we should all at least be concerned about it.
“Humans expect positive events in the future even when there is no evidence to support such expectations,” the study found. People also have the tendency to believe that they will live longer and be healthier than the average person. They “overestimate their prospects for success on the job market,” as well.
Do our brains naturally project unrealistic optimism?
This sort of thinking of course helps explain people’s reluctance to prepare for a catastrophic event, whether that be a natural disaster or an economic collapse.
There are various signs telling us that either of these scenarios is plausible, yet the general public (for the most part) refuses to prepare for the possibility of a cataclysmic event.
Attempting to understand how and why our brains appear to have this built-in sort of optimism, researchers examined how exactly our minds generate pervasive optimism.
The optimism bias is “related specifically to enhanced activation in the amygdala and in the rostral anterior cingulate cortex when imagining positive future events relative to negative ones,” said researchers.
Human emotions and personal experiences may impact positive perceptions, say scientists
This suggests “a key role for areas involved in monitoring emotional salience in mediating the optimism bias.”
Interestingly, they found that these areas of the brain are the same regions that exhibit “irregularities in depression,” which scientists say is related to pessimism.
“Across individuals, activity in the rostral anterior cingulate cortex was correlated with trait optimism,” the study found. Scientists theorize that the “brain may generate the tendency to engage in the projection of positive future events.”
Furthermore, our emotional well-being combined with information about our own experiences supports a positive outlook on life in healthy people, creating a pervasive bias, explain researchers.
Is pervasive optimism a positive or a negative?
It’s difficult to say whether optimism bias in humans is positive or negative. On the one hand, it seems as though positive thinking would allow us to endure difficult times; there’s certainly something refreshing about always seeing the good in things.
But on the other hand, it could lead us into dangerous situations that might have been prevented if we had looked at things more critically.
Either way, more research is needed to better understand the purpose of this tool, as well as to determine whether it’s a gift or a hindrance.