Archive | Tali Sharot RSS feed for this section

Optimism, denial and hope

5 Sep

Hope‘It’s seeing and not seeing at the same time’. This was how the British psychotherapist Adam Phillips characterised the psychological response of denial, in a BBC radio 4 programme last week. Sometimes denial can be healthy, Phillips added. There are situations when it may be the best way we have of coming to an accommodation with a disturbing issue or event. And in order to deny something, we do at least have to acknowledge that it exists.

So the effects of denial depend very much on how far we take this form of self-deception.  

The radio programme in question was ‘Knowing and not knowing’, presented by Isabel Hardman as part of her series ‘The Age of Denial’ (https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m00035nx). Hardman went on to talk to Tali Sharot, professor of neuroscience at University College London, and author of the book The optimism bias: why we’re wired to look on the bright side. According to Sharot, 80% of us are hard-wired with an optimism bias, while 10% have a pessimism bias,  and 10% have no bias at all. Being an optimist, she says, ‘doesn’t necessarily mean that you are a happy person, a smiley person’. It’s true that optimists do tend to be happier. But being optimistic isn’t about now, it’s about our expectations of the future. Sharot believes that what keeps optimists happy is anticipation: they are looking forward to positive outcomes.

Since expectations are generally better than the actual outcomes, Hardman chips in, why aren’t 80% of us disappointed most of the time? Sharot’s answer is that optimists tend to learn from what happens to them. For example, an optimist may believe that she is going to do very well in an exam she’s just taken. If the results turn out to be not as good as she expected, she’s already anticipating the next challenge, and she resolves to study harder.   So failure doesn’t reduce her sense of well being. She simply pins her hopes, once again, on future success.

Sharot thinks that our tendency towards optimism is a factor in human evolution. It reduces stress and anxiety, and enhances motivation. It also makes us willing to explore and to innovate.

This link to evolution was examined in more detail when Hardman talked to Ajit Varki, a professor of medicine at the University of San Diego in California. Varki sees our capacity for denial as an in-built response which helped to keep evolution going. There was a time when human beings became aware of their own mortality, Varki says, and this would have caused great anxiety. The individuals who first developed this awareness and, alongside it, a ‘facile ability to ignore reality’ were more likely to survive. Knowing that we were subject to death helped to protect us from danger, while simultaneously pretending that it would never happen to us saved us a great deal of distress. In other words, denial gave us the ability to carry on. It had huge evolutionary advantages.

Sharot’s ideas in particular made me think once again about the value of hope. If she’s right, then the fact that hope for the future often leads to disappointment isn’t detrimental to our personal happiness.  Hope may be absurd, as Albert Camus observed, but it could be the thing that protects our well being.

Let’s assume for now that I myself am one of the hard-wired pessimists. Actually I’m never sure about this, but it may well be my tendency towards pessimism that makes me come back, as usual, to the problem of complacency, and the global dangers of happiness. Sharot thinks that the optimism bias makes us underestimate the likelihood of negative events, such as cancer, a car crash, or getting divorced. ‘Oh I know nearly half my friends have gone through a marriage break-up,’ we say to ourselves as we walk down the aisle, ‘but that isn’t going to happen to me.’ 

On a personal level this response may be all to the good. But on the level of the wider community it might be extremely damaging.  extinction rebellionI’m writing this at the end of two weeks of protest in London and elsewhere orchestrated by Extinction Rebellion. What’s going through my mind at the moment is that optimism probably keeps most of us believing  that the planet isn’t going to be destroyed by climate change. ‘Oh it will probably never happen,’ we think. In fact, we’re just hoping that it isn’t going to happen. We’re in denial.

And we’re almost certainly wrong.