Feeling optimistic? It’s no surprise

A Chalk Farm based neuroscientist has found that we are programmed to look on the bright side.

On the fifth floor of a UCL building in Euston is the department of neuroimaging. There, just out of the lift I meet Tali Sharot who is the author of the first attention grabbing book of the year: The Optimism Bias.

Sharot, who has recently moved to Chalk Farm, is a neuroscientist who, while trying to study memory and how our brains use it in 2006, came across a discovery that may change a lot. She found that when people imagine future situations, they have (as written in the book), a ‘tendency to overestimate the likelihood of positive events and understate the likelihood of negative events’- in short; they have an ‘optimism bias’

“I didn’t mean to study optimism; I was surprised when people kept coming up with these very positive scenarios. I discovered that there was quite a large body of literature suggesting that there is this positivity bias, especially in the way we look at the future. The thing is it is a bias and like many other biases of the human brain, it works because we are unaware of it. It’s similar to the blind spot. There is lot about the human body that we are not aware of. We think we are, but we’re not.”

The book is a manageable volume which discusses the implications of Sharot’s findings. Sharot takes us neatly from a discussion of our perception of reality versus actual reality through whether we can predict what will actually make us happy and depression and into fascinating accounts of everyday brain activities like choice, anticipation and dread.

In the book we learn that what we think might make us happy might not because we view it in a positive light due to our optimism bias. Tarot also lays bare what really goes wrong in the brains of people who suffer from depression in a clear and captivating way.

“The book is for anyone who is interested in the human mind” says Sharot. “The emails that I get are so diverse: emails from religious people, business people, people who have suffered with depression. I’ve even had emails from fire-fighters who say they can use the book to enhance their training.”

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With her research, Sharot, originally from Israel, educated in New York and now in a permanent position at UCL, has taken the thing that seems most obvious to us and flipped it upside down. Old adages like ‘look on the bright side’ make it seem like we are programmed to be negative. “People assume themselves to be naturally negative. I think it is more prominent in certain cultures. I conducted most of my research in Britain and across lots of different places in the world, rather than just the US to eliminate the idea that it was because I was studying Americans that there was a lot of optimism.”

The findings, Sharot hopes, will help improve not just the lives of people with brain issues like depression, but the quality of everyone’s life. “The ultimate end will be to enhance wellbeing of everyone. Of both healthy individuals as well as unhealthy individuals. An easy connection is yes, finding ways to improve therapy for depressed individuals. But in non depressed individuals optimism can have negative effects- because of the bias people may not protect themselves, for example people may not visit the doctor as they don’t see themselves getting ill. Being aware of the bias can improve people’s lives.”

“It can also have effects in government and companies, not only individuals. The best example is in the British government because they have put recommendations in how to overcome this in for example, budgeting for projects. All the government budgets now have to be adjusted to allow for the optimism bias of the people who initially created them- the cost is going to be more than we think and the time is going to be longer than we imagine.

“Another individual example is my friend, who is getting married next year. He has drawn up a budget and then added a little more on top to account for his optimism bias about cost and time,” says Sharot. It’s no surprise that the Olympics project, which came in on time and just under budget, had an optimism bias.

Sharot’s list doesn’t stop there. “We also think that these findings can help advise things like health campaigns. At the moment we believe health campaigns are not working for example, the large negative warning signs on cigarettes. The optimism bias means that people look at the packet and think: ‘it won’t be me’.”

As the book goes public in the UK, after receiving a warm response in the US, Sharot continues her research up on the fifth floor. “The first application is to look at depression, I first understand the healthy brain, and from that want to get inside what’s going on when things go wrong. We are also looking at ways to change optimism, enhance it or reduce it, using all kinds of biological measures. The research hasn’t been published yet so I can’t give exact details, but it should be available next month.”

The Optimism Bias is published by Constable Robinson, �8.99. theoptimismbias.com