By nature, we're optimistic. We think we're better than most people at virtually everything we do. We believe we'll beat the odds of getting cancer even when we smoke a pack of cigarettes a week. This is the result of our optimism bias, and it both helps us succeed and make some of the dumbest decisions of our lives. Here's how it works, and how you can make it work for you.
In the video above, scientist Tali Sharot gives a brilliant TED talk on our optimism bias. It's the phenomenon that causes us to look on the upside of just about everything, whether that's to our benefit or not. There are many upsides, such as believing you will succeed against all odds. It's the part of our brains that helps us take important chances and risks in the face of adversity so we can achieve something great. It's something we'd barely be human without. It's also responsible for convincing us that smoking is going to kill someone else rather than us. It keeps us from buying health insurance because we'll never get hurt. It makes us believe we could actually win the lottery, and that winning the lottery could make us happy. If you've ever been excited about the possibility of anything, you have an idea about how it works.
Anticipation Makes Us Happier Than the Result
Often times the main event — whatever it may be — isn't all that great. Instead, it's the months leading up to that event that we love. Think about your favourite days of the week. If you picked Saturday first, then Friday, you're among the majority. Saturday is our first day off from work, so we look forward to it all week. Friday is our first late-night option, since we don't have to get up on Saturday. But what about Sunday? We have the entire day off. Why isn't it better than Friday? Because on Sunday there's no anticipation of the weekend. We know we're going back to work. It doesn't matter if we love or hate our jobs, but just that we're not anticipating the fun things we'll do over the weekend. It's the imaginative quality of anticipation — one that's often uniquely optimistic — that makes us happy. While the result may be good, it's everything leading up to that result that matters more.
This is good because it makes us do things. We get excited about the prospects of anything we think we'll enjoy, and that provides us with the necessary motivation to actually do it. This points to one good trick: if you want to motivate yourself to get started on anything, just think about how great it will be when you've finished. Whether it will actually be great or not is another story in itself, but even if the optimism is misplaced it'll be enough to get you started. And getting started is everything.
When Making Important Decisions, Your Optimism Bias Can Hurt You
The downside to the optimism bias is that it can cause you to make some decisions that will seem pretty dumb in hindsight. You might think private health insurance is a waste of money because you've rarely been sick and then find yourself stuck with a $5000 emergency room bill and no way to pay it. You'll justify all the chocolate cake you eat as a harmless indulgence despite your family's history of heart problems. You just won't take risks seriously because your brain has a bias for looking on the bright side.
This can be intensely problematic, but the alternative is just as bad. Constant paranoia might help you live longer, but it certainly doesn't improve your quality of life. That said, you don't have to pick one extreme over the other. Through Sharot's research, she's learned that although we don't know our biases inherently, knowledge that they exist is just about enough to keep us from making stupid decisions. If you simply keep in mind that your optimism bias exists, when you think highly of yourself you'll be able to question whether or not that mode of thought is beneficial or hurtful. If it helps you move forward, let it be. If not, consider the possible major downsides. Request advice from other people in your life before you buy a home in a supposedly up-and-coming neighbourhood. Play devil's advocate with yourself. None of these suggestions are new, but research hadn't indicated how much we needed it until recently. Remember your bias and use it wisely. It can save your life and make it great, or it can cause you harm. It's your choice.