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Friday, July 18, 2014

Day 564: Is Your Optimism Delusional?

https://www.ted.com/talks/tali_sharot_the_optimism_bias/transcript

This is taken from the transcript of the beginning of Tali Sharot's talk:
I'm going to talk to you about optimism -- or more precisely, the optimism bias. It's a cognitive illusion that we've been studying in my lab for the past few years, and 80 percent of us have it. 
It's our tendency to overestimate our likelihood of experiencing good events in our lives and underestimate our likelihood of experiencing bad events. So we underestimate our likelihood of suffering from cancer, being in a car accident. We overestimate our longevity, our career prospects. In short, we're more optimistic than realistic, but we are oblivious to the fact.  
Take marriage for example. In the Western world, divorce rates are about 40 percent. That means that out of five married couples, two will end up splitting their assets. But when you ask newlyweds about their own likelihood of divorce, they estimate it at zero percent. And even divorce lawyers, who should really know better, hugely underestimate their own likelihood of divorce. So it turns out that optimists are not less likely to divorce, but they are more likely to remarry. In the words of Samuel Johnson, "Remarriage is the triumph of hope over experience." 
So if we're married, we're more likely to have kids. And we all think our kids will be especially talented. This, by the way, is my two-year-old nephew, Guy. And I just want to make it absolutely clear that he's a really bad example of the optimism bias, because he is in fact uniquely talented. 
And I'm not alone. Out of four British people, three said that they were optimistic about the future of their own families. That's 75 percent. But only 30 percent said that they thought families in general are doing better than a few generations ago. 
And this is a really important point, because we're optimistic about ourselves, we're optimistic about our kids, we're optimistic about our families, but we're not so optimistic about the guy sitting next to us, and we're somewhat pessimistic about the fate of our fellow citizens and the fate of our country. But private optimism about our own personal future remains persistent. And it doesn't mean that we think things will magically turn out okay, but rather that we have the unique ability to make it so. 
Now I'm a scientist, I do experiments. So to show you what I mean, I'm going to do an experiment here with you. So I'm going to give you a list of abilities and characteristics, and I want you to think for each of these abilities where you stand relative to the rest of the population. 
The first one is getting along well with others. Who here believes they're at the bottom 25 percent? Okay, that's about 10 people out of 1,500. Who believes they're at the top 25 percent? That's most of us here. Okay, now do the same for your driving ability. How interesting are you? How attractive are you? How honest are you? And finally, how modest are you? 
So most of us put ourselves above average on most of these abilities. Now this is statistically impossible. We can't all be better than everyone else. (Laughter) But if we believe we're better than the other guy, well that means that we're more likely to get that promotion, to remain married, because we're more social, more interesting. 
And it's a global phenomenon. The optimism bias has been observed in many different countries -- in Western cultures, in non-Western cultures, in females and males, in kids, in the elderly. It's quite widespread.         

Were you aware of this tendency in yourself or in other people? Probably not, especially if you are not a psychologist or do not have an interest in psychology and other related fields. Why is the general public not made aware of this common bias and others like it? You could argue that there is a lot of material about it freely available on the internet - the problem in this world is that most people are simply not interested in taking the time to do that kind of research. It is quite rare to meet a person who is actively curious about their own nature, with a special interest in determining whether it can be changed. A lot of people may find research like the study above interesting, but are unlikely to really integrate this knowledge into their lives with the intention of becoming more aware of it within themselves, so that they can change.

As I implied above, psychology is aware of this bias. My question is why does psychology not promote this awareness to everyone, so that everyone can choose for themselves whether they want to live this way? Why is Psychology instead used to make advertising better at manipulating people and exploiting our tendencies such as the optimism bias? Why are movies and TV series about sex and whatever the trend of the day is instead of about showing how it is possible to improve yourself? How about a show that depicts how one of the main characters deals with an anger problem, or stress about money, or relationship issues instead of making movies and shows about deception and giving in to things like anger?

Obviously the media is the way it is because its primary goal is to make as much money as possible - the same goes for at least part of Psychology. The other aspect of psychology is that the psychologists entering the field are coming from a broken education system where they are not taught to question, but to obey and conform. There are very few psychologists who have taken the leap into the unknown by venturing outside of the bounds of accepted theories. Noam Chomsky is a cool example - he asks a lot of relevant questions that lead you to consider that maybe the world isn't as you believed it to be.

Everywhere you look, the only thing that is promoted is ignorance. If people were truly educated - not only about the world but about themselves as well - then the world would look much different. The media would not be able to function the way it does now, simply because it currently focuses on exploiting human ignorance and our tendency to get distracted by shiny objects and sparkling lights.

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