Have you ever ran across a busy street, pushed your car beyond the speed limit or drank milk when it’s passed its expiration date? The consequences don’t happen to you right? Even if you don’t consciously feel lucky, you behave as if you are. We all do.
Rather than naivety or fantasy, science suggests that the human brain could actually be hardwired to favour optimism over realism. Even the most pessimistic of people and prone to see the sunny side of life – despite their objections.
This phenomenon has been called ‘Optimism Bias’. In a recent TED talk, cognitive neuroscientist Tali Sharot describes it as our “tendency to overestimate our likelihood of experiencing good events in our lives and underestimate the likelihood of experiencing bad events”. She also says that most people are oblivious to this fact.
So why would the brain delude us in to believing we are luckier or safer than we are when it comes to our own mortality and of those we love? When the body has so many defense mechanisms, such as scabbing after scraping a knee or any sensation of pain, surely optimistic behaviour would be counterproductive?
One of the answers to this complex question could be that optimism improves our health. The ‘power of positive thinking’ is often disregarded as lacking scientific basis, however science and medical professionals have discovered that an optimistic state lowers stress and can improve physical well-being. In patients with life-threatening or terminal illnesses, studies have shown that those with more optimistic perspectives were more likely to follow doctors’ orders when it came to making lifestyle changes to reduce future risks. In comparison to their more optimistic peers, those with negative world views were more likely to succumb to their illness within months after treatment.
However, there is a line between optimism and reckless self-endangerment. To understand this further, Sharot conducted a test to see why people take needless risks despite logically understanding the consequences. Using a functional MRI scanner, she pinpointed two areas of the brain that responded to positive and negative information. When given good news, the left inferior frontal gyrus has a very active response. Next they discovered that the right inferior frontal gyrus did not respond adequately when given bad information, and it seemed that the less optimistic the test subject was, the less response their right inferior frontal gyrus exhibited.
However, its apparent that our species would never survive without hope. So enjoy your built in optimism, because we were made to feel lucky. Just don’t let it blind you.