Scientists say that most of the world's population is mildly optimistic. Scientists say that most of the world's population is mildly optimistic. Scientists say that most of the world's population is mildly optimistic. (Photo: Marekuliasz / Shutterstock)

Are we born to be optimistic, rather than realistic?

When we look into the crystal ball, we often see roses. Is that a good thing?

You've often heard the question: Are you a glass-is-half-full or half-empty kind of person?

Turns out, 80% of the world – no matter the age or ethnicity – has an optimism bias, according to Dr. Tali Sharot, a neuroscientist currently serving as a visiting professor at MIT.

So, um, what exactly is an optimism bias? Think of it this way: Statistics show that about 50% of couples get divorced, but most people believe their own likelihood of divorce is much lower. Here's another example: While the average person in the United States may live to be 79, people expect to be healthier and live longer than the average person.

People see statistics, but they don't think those figures will apply to them. Instead, they overestimate the positive and underestimate the likelihood of negative events – such as divorce, cancer, accidents – happening to them.

So why are we so optimistic? Sharot, an alumnus of Tel Aviv University in her native Israel, discovered that our brains are wired to be this way.

"When optimists imagine the future, you'll see much more activation in regions that are related to emotion like the amygdala, as well as regions that modulate emotional responses," she told From The Grapevine. "The two communicate more when you're imagining more positive events. When people imagine more positive events, they imagine it in more detail and with more vividness. And the negative events are more hazy."

This leads to an obvious question: Is having an optimism bias just a fancy term for being naive, for thinking that we're immune to bad things? Or is there some innate benefit to the optimism bias?

"It's been shown that people who are optimistic are healthier, live longer and get over illnesses quicker mostly because stress and anxiety is reduced if you have positive expectations," Sharot explained. "We know that's really good for your health. But also because we know that people who believe they will be strong and healthy tend to actually do things in order to get to that stage – follow their doctor's orders, and so on."

She said that being mildly optimistic is a good thing. "It is important because our expectations drive our actions and our decisions."

Sharot wrote a book about the optimism bias and travels the world giving talks about the topic, including at the University College London where she also teaches. Sharot continues to do research in how emotions affect our decision-making, and has worked on a project about dishonesty with fellow Israeli Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist at Duke University.

In the meantime, she says the optimism bias can serve one more function: It can be a great motivator. "If you think a lot of people are going to read this article, you'll work harder on it."


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