The Optimism Bias

Is the glass half empty or half full? Well, if you're anything like the average American, then chances are you're biased toward optimism.

Here's an interesting article by Tali Sharot of TIME Magazine about science of optimism, and how may just be hardwired by evolution into our brain as a survival mechanism against the knowledge of certain death:

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. Although most of us take this ability for granted, our capacity to envision a different time and place is in fact critical to our survival.

It is easy to see why cognitive time travel was naturally selected for over the course of evolution. It allows us to plan ahead, to save food and resources for times of scarcity and to endure hard work in anticipation of a future reward. It also lets us forecast how our current behavior may influence future generations. If we were not able to picture the world in a hundred years or more, would we be concerned with global warming? Would we attempt to live healthily? Would we have children?

While mental time travel has clear survival advantages, conscious foresight came to humans at an enormous price — the understanding that somewhere in the future, death awaits. Ajit Varki, a biologist at the University of California, San Diego, argues that the awareness of mortality on its own would have led evolution to a dead end. The despair would have interfered with our daily function, bringing the activities needed for survival to a stop. The only way conscious mental time travel could have arisen over the course of evolution is if it emerged together with irrational optimism. Knowledge of death had to emerge side by side with the persistent ability to picture a bright future.

Link (Image: Noma Bar)


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We have a pet rock. He used to be in our fish tank, but he got lonely and depressed so we put him in the flower garden. Now he's really happy and breeding pebbles like the scamp he is.
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Teleology is no less solid than it's opposite. The belief that there is no teleological cause is just as much a choice of belief as is the view that there is a teleological cause, at least from the standpoint of standard human reason. But standard human reason unwittingly revolves around itself and is incapable of so-called "extralogical" insight. In truth however, reason is a mere tool which can be employed from any base of reference. Whereas in the naive realist sense reason is employed from a base reference which exalts the human mind (i.e. purpose/intention instead of cause/effect), in the enlightened, extralogical sense, there is no difference between purpose/intention and cause/effect. It is only because men imagine themselves to be something special that teleological explanations appear unbelievably outrageous. If men were no different than rocks, it wouldn't be so difficult to believe because we would have no compulsion to conceive of ourselves and our intentions as anything but cause and effect. And perhaps we would then realize an essential timelessness with respect to cause and effect and identify what some insightful thinkers refer to as "vertical causation" which is not time-dependent but is more akin to a a view of interdependene of form within time slices.
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As interesting as this all is, I do feel compelled to point out that the authors of this article are indulging in the same old logical fallacy-- the incorrect idea that evolution is "leading somewhere", happening *for* something, or going *towards* something. Hasn't anybody ever read Stephen Jay Gould? We don't know if OR why "mental time travel" happens, because it hasn't even been properly defined, to begin with. So we don't know if "cognitive time travel" even exists as a human function, much less whether it was "selected for." This kind of sloppy thinking occurs with such mind-numbing regularity. I am just going to start publishing the link to the Gould/Eldredge paper "The Spandrels of San Marcos" every single time I see it. (stomps off mumbling vague, incoherent things)
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From a completely different perspective it is entirely possible to live without optimism and in-fact without pessimism either. In so-called 'mystic' and vedantic schools of thought both optimism and pessimism are mutually interdependent opposites within a duality. The Vedantic doctrine of Advaita (non-duality) suggests it is possible to attain a state of non-dual thought, whereby the choice between pessmism and optimism is rendered non-sensical and becomes merely the mental maze of the leity.

In other words, neither is required and transcendence of duality may work out to be the most "evolutionarily advantageous".
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