Reading Note — “The Optimism Bias”

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Illustration by Noma Bar for TIME


“The Optimism Bias”, Time, June 6, 2011 , is a very interesting and thought-provoking article. It solved a lot of puzzles which  haunted my mind. You can read this article on Time’s website. I promise it won’t let you down. But the other thing I want to remind you is that the reading experience is totally different between web and printed paper. Of course, printed paper is much better.

We’re born to be some optimistic creatures, we tend to believe things will turn out to be better than what they will really end up; most people suppose their driving levels are beyond the average, which is certainly a ridiculous judgement; almost no one think he/she will divorce when he/she just get  the marriage-license; we underestimate our chances of getting fired; we wear rose-colored glasses to look into the world. Yet we don’t aware of it, besides, we don’t know why our genes shape us in this way.

To figure out the why question is not an easy job.

FIRST OF ALL, do you realize that you’re optimistic? If you never read such articles  or attended some psychological curriculum, I would guess your answer to be negative. But when you finish reading the last paragraph and think through, you’ll notice how overly optimistic we are.

SECONDLY, why we become so? We, human beings, regard ourselves as a rational species. We are more likely to be objective. Optimism lure us to form some false outcomes of things, which makes us seem stupid. Worst of all, optimism exists generally in most of us. So either there are some other benefits of optimism to make its exist reasonable, or evolution made a tragic joke over our mortals. Now “The Optimism Bias” reveals that do have some critical benefits of become optimistic. Like the author of  “The Optimism Bias” said:

…the bias also protects and inspires us: it keeps us moving forward rather than to the nearest high-rise ledge. Without optimism, our ancestors might never have ventured far from their tribes and we might all be cave dwellers, still huddled together and dreaming of light and heat.

To make progress, we need to be able to imagine alternative realities–better ones–and we need to believe that we can achieve them…

As compared with these advantages and disadvantages, we can conclude that to be positive is much more crucial to our survival. If we cannot walk out of the cave, it doesn’t matter whether we make some disastrous miscalculations under the influence of optimism , such as less likely to get health checkups or open a savings account.

THIRDLY, to understand the real function of our memory system. What the use of our memory system? To remember the past? Partly true, but not exactly. Research data shows our memories are not reliable. When the time passed by, our memories reconstruct the events happened before with lots of errors, omits and amends. If the memory system is naturally selected and designed precisely to reproduce the past, how can it be that wrong after thousands’ years of evolution? Let’s see  what the author say about it:

Scientists who study memory proposed an intriguing answer: memories are susceptible to inaccuracies partly because the neural system responsible for remembering episodes from our past might not have evolved for memory alone. Rather, the core function of  the memory system could in fact be to imagine the future–to enable us to prepare for what has yet to come. The system is not designed to perfectly replay past events, the researchers claimed. It is designed to flexibly construct future scenarios in our minds. As a result, memory also ends up being a reconstructive process, and occasionally, details are deleted and others inserted.

And what’s the relationship between memory system and optimism? To understand the mechanism of memory system help us a lot, we know this system deliberately delete something unexpected and insert something desirable. In this way, we become optimistic creatures.

FOURTHLY, to perceive the human time machine.

To think positively about our prospects, we must first be able to imagine ourselves in the future. Optimism starts with what may be the most extraordinary of human talents: mental time travel, the ability to move back and forth through time and space in one’s mind.

We may take this ability for granted, mankind make such mistakes quite often. But the truth is, we never randomly acquire any abilities without deliberately purpose. As we possess this ability, we’re able to make plans and set goals, which help us to be to cleverest primate on earth. But unfortunately, every coin has two sides,

While mental time travel has clear survival advantages, conscious foresight cane to human at an enormous price–the understanding that somewhere in the future, death awaits.

We mortals are all unwillingly to accept that, it makes us depress. Things turns out to be meaningless. No matter how hard we work, no matter how many efforts we made, one day, everyone of us will disappear from this world. This will lead our necessarily activities to survival to a dead end, that divert from the meaning of life. At least, evolution and natural selection won’t allow it to be happened in mass creatures. So optimism stands out to counter the pessimism. To irrationally picture a bright future maybe the only way to inspire us to sustain.

FIFTHLY, optimism is not just something about illusion, it has the power to change the reality. Since most of us think optimism merely formed inside our mind, how can it effect the reality? Have you ever heard the self-fulfilling prophecy? It’s a prediction that directly or indirectly causes itself to become true, by the very terms of the prophecy itself, due to positive or negative feedback between belief and behavior. When you expecting something good, your brain will get excited, usually this will improve your performance in certain aspects; on contrary, your brain will stay indifferent if you primed it with some negative messages. You see, optimism do have influence over our brain, and whether our brain behaves active or negative affects our performance, different performance lead to different results, that’s why optimism has the power to change the reality.

SIXTHLY, sliver linings. Optimism not only takes effect when we face the good and the bad, but also appears when we have to make a choice among bad things (or good things). If you must bear a malady, it’s will be painful experience to choose from a broken leg or a broken arm. But once you has slightly tilt towards one malady, optimism will immediately step in and take charge of your feelings. You’ll think positive of what you have chosen. Let’s say you painfully made the decision to have a broken leg, seconds later you may conceive some ideas in you mind: It’s not that bad, maybe I’ll stack in the room, but I could play video game all day long. Great!” We live in a rapid world, time is short for us to struggle in dilemma, we must keep moving, with the  help of optimism we can make some quick decisions.

SEVENTHLY, can we take the advantage of  optimism and remain rational? Of course we can, like the author said:

I believe knowledge is key…The good news is that awareness rarely shatters the illusion. The glass remains half full. If possible, then, to strike a balance, to believe we will stay healthy, but get medical insurance anyway; to be certain the sun will shine, but grab an umbrella on our way out — just in case.

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