The downside to looking on the bright side

Tali Sharot, a professor at University College London, wanted to find out why so many people - even when facing long odds or bleak prospects - remain stubbornly, even pathologically, optimistic. Photo / Thinkstock
Tali Sharot, a professor at University College London, wanted to find out why so many people - even when facing long odds or bleak prospects - remain stubbornly, even pathologically, optimistic. Photo / Thinkstock

If you are always seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, be warned - it could be an oncoming train.

So says a study published in Nature Neuroscience, which concludes that a penchant for donning rose-tinted glasses may be a failure to store risk awareness in a key part of the brain.

Tali Sharot, a professor at University College London, was intrigued as to why so many people - even when facing long odds or bleak prospects - remain stubbornly, even pathologically, optimistic.

To learn more, 19 volunteers were asked to take part in an experiment.

Sharot and colleagues monitored subjects in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner as they were confronted with life situations ranging from unpleasant to catastrophic.

Having their car stolen, getting fired from their job, developing Parkinson's disease or cancer were among 80 scenarios evoked.

After each hypothetical disaster, the volunteers were asked to estimate the odds of the misfortune happening to them. While still in the scanner, they were then informed of the true average probability of the risk.

Sometime later, the volunteers once again quantified the odds for personally experiencing each scenario.

The researchers found that the volunteers updated their initial estimates - but only when the true figures were less gloomy.

If, for example, they had predicted a 40 per cent chance of contracting cancer but the average likelihood turned out to be 30 per cent, they were far more likely to adjust their estimate sharply downward.

But if the odds were worse than originally thought, the volunteers simply ignored the true statistics.

"Our study suggests that we pick and choose the information that we listen to," said Sharot.

"The more optimistic we are, the less likely we are to be influenced by negative information about the future," said Sharot.

Why so?

In the brain scans, all participants showed increased activity in their frontal lobes - which is strongly associated with emotional control - whenever the real numbers were better than expected.

The activity indicated that the new information was being processed and stored.

But when the news was more dire than the first guesstimate, respondents who had rated highest for "optimism" in a personality test, taken beforehand, showed the least activity in their frontal lobe.

Sharot said the work showed unbridled optimism had unperceived risks.

"Seeing the glass as half full rather than half empty can be a positive thing - it can lower stress and anxiety, and be good for our health and well-being," she said.

"But it can also mean that we are less likely to take precautionary action, such as practising safe sex or saving up for retirement," she said.

Many experts, she pointed out, believe that the financial crisis that began in the fall of 2008 was in large part caused by wishful thinking about rising property values and the ability to downplay or dismiss levels of debt.

- AAP

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on red akl_n4 at 29 Jul 2014 17:52:13 Processing Time: 33ms