Thursday, March 22, 2012

Irrational Exuberance

Are you optimistic, hopeful about the future? It turns out you are not alone; roughly 80% of the population expects things to get better. The reason? You’re biased.

Below I offer a 19-minute explanatory video from the RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce).
Why are we so terrible at predicting what will make us happy? How do we maintain such stalwart optimism about our future in the face of so many modern threats?

Psychologists have long been aware that most people maintain an often irrationally positive outlook on life. Now it looks as though optimism may, in fact, be crucial to our existence. But does unrealistic optimism also threaten it as well?

Acclaimed neuroscientist Tali Sharot’s experiments and research at The Social Brain Project in cognitive science have shed new light on the biological basis of optimism, and she visits the RSA to take an in-depth look at how the brain generates hope and what happens when it fails.
As a Skeptic, I find optimism (or pessimism, for that matter) equally disquieting, particularly if either position is based on incorrect or biased assumptions. For me, I would much rather deal with the facts of a situation; this gives me a more accurate basis on which to act or proceed and thereby expect a more optimal outcome. I have long felt that religious belief is popular because it affords people an optimistic viewpoint regardless of the realities of one’s situation.

But our media and culture are often bombarded with optimistically appearing messages. Over the last month, for example, media reports that the Consumer price index rose 0.2% or home sales rose 3% or unemployment dropped 2% leave the implication that these trends are linear and will continue their positive progression. In fact these figures rise and fall with regularity – precisely what statistics of these measures routinely do.

A reported drop in unemployment does not explain how many people have permanently given up looking for work, how many have returned to work at much lower wages. The underlying concept of "productivity" actually equates to more products or services using fewer people and/or at lower cost. Less people accomplishing more does not bode well for an increasing population all wishing to thrive and prosper.

Still I speak with friends who just assume that things will be getting better; housing will rebound, employment will rally. And in the short run, at least,they probably are correct.

Maybe it’s just me, but in the grand scope of things I don’t see things getting better. As I have often repeated in this blog, I believe my generation has seen the best times Man has, and ever will, on this planet. The truth is the middle class has shrunk, college graduates are increasingly finding it difficult to earn a decent living, and the tenor of political discourse makes me feel like there are those among eager to return society back to the 19ths century.

During a recent exchange with one of my commenters I came across this quotation: "You believe easily that which you hope for earnestly." – Terence 185–159 BC

I believe Terence's simple statement more than adequately sums up the conclusions drawn from Sharot's research at the Social Brain Project.


Rain Trueax said...

I tend to think things will get better but always am aware that will be dependent on wise choices which may or may not happen. I suspect our feeling they will get better comes from experience-- and ditto that they will not. If mostly we have seen bad times but know they don't last, we tend to believe the future will improve. Some of that though comes back to the question-- what does better mean? I fully realize that some cultures have totally lost everything including their identity. But maybe the people went on but just with a new identity-- those who survived anyway. The thing is if someone has gone through a period of depression, they know that the only real hope they have is that it won't last.

Rubye Jack said...

All my evidence has always shown me there is no reason to be an optimist.

John Myste said...

In a Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde painted the picture of a deep desire as tantamount to a prayer, the term he actually chose.

DJan said...

Robert, your skepticism is a very important part of my life. I am an optimist by nature and need some sort of counterbalance in order to be able to see the world as it really is. You help me to do that, because your clear and unbiased views challenge me. I am glad you are continuing to do that. It is irrational to be optimistic, isn't it?

Robert the Skeptic said...

Rain You bring up a good question; "what does better mean?" I think of the trade-offs of aging, for example; yes, I am more financially secure than in any time of my life, but then I am no longer a young man any more either.

Rubye Hopefully the evidence also shows you there is no reason to be a pessimist either.

John It apparently is true that religious believers are generally happier, and I would assume therefore, hopeful than non-believers. But if happiness or hopefulness is based on unsubstantiated belief, what is the point indeed!

DJan What I hope people take away from skepticism is a grasp of our reality. We can only deal with the issues in our life if we understand the realities behind them. Creating myths only distracts one from dealing with real life issues. To that extent it is not irrational to be optimistic if the situation indicates you should.

Rain Trueax said...

What I have to do with aging, when I see the differences that aging is making in my life, is think that I am experiencing it. It's fully to be here at a time where life is in a cycle. It's not like it's better but it's that it is part of the whole experience of living. When I think of it that way, and that I got here when some I loved did not, it makes it easier to see it as a plus. When life ends, well then we find out if there is anything beyond... or isn't... Well then we never do know :)

Robert the Skeptic said...

Rain You are remarkable. Thank you!

Elisabeth said...

Fascinating post, Robert. I respond to it with a quote from Alain de Botton:

" Because the ego is inherently vulnerable, its predominant mood is one of anxiety. It is skittish jumping from object to object, unable ever to relax its vigilance or engage properly with others. Even under the most auspicious of contexts, it is never far from a relentless, throbbing drumbeat of worry, which conspires to prevent it from sincere involvement with anything outside of itself. And yet the ego also has a touching tendency constantly to trust that its desires are about to be fulfilled. Images of tranquility and security haunt it..." Alain de Botton, Religion for Atheists.

Different language perhaps but a related notion.

Thanks for this.

Paul said...

How would you account for the despair that more and more Americans are feeling ? Many of my friends just say why bother at all . Have you cver read "Thus Spake Zarathustra " ? The truth is that we cannot know what the future will have ib store for us. Reason cannot predict the future anymore than a charlatan or a ouija board or astrology can.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Elisabeth I totally love that quotation, and it describes me perfectly. Thank you for sharing it.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Paul I would account for the widespread despair as a reaction to actual conditions directly impacting people; job loss, increased cost of living, more costly access to education, rises in medical, erosion of civil liberties, etc. People have good cause for being discouraged. Although when I read other blogs that chronicle these issues, some also voice optimism that they expect things to get better. I think the point of the article/video I posted is that optimism exists regardless of tangible indications of it's reality.

I have not read "Thus Spake Zarathustra" though I confess my reading material tends to lean more toward non-fiction.

I agree that reason cannot fully predict the future. The best we can do is make educated guesses based on presumptions we attempt to glean from past or current observations.

Anonymous said...

Lots of food for thought, Robert.

As a species, we run the gamut from beautiful to terribly flawed. I wonder how it will all play out, particularly from the standpoint of evolution. If we don't kill ourselves off first (and it's not looking good), who are the fittest?

The terribly flawed, like sociopaths, are harder to wrap our heads around and are often in positions of power. Therefore when they do horrible things to promote their own self-interest while, say, spewing toxins into the environment that cause childhood leukemia and kill off ecosystems, they usually get away with it because most people can't imagine that anyone would do that deliberately. Their insatiable greed and self-interest fuels my pessimism.

Then I go somewhere beautiful and isolated, far from people, and I'm reminded how small and insignificant we are. For some reason that makes me feel optimistic. I don't know why.

Antares Cryptos said...

It depends on the definition of "better". No one can predict the future. Will the economy improve? Yes. Eventually.

Will future generations enjoy the same personal wealth as the baby boomers? Probably not.

I have learned that different approaches are individual. Personally, the "expect the worst, hope for the best" works best for me, but some are more functional thinking "happy thoughts".

Robert the Skeptic said...

Dissenter I was quite moved by Marylinn Kelly's post containing the excerpt from Carl Sagan's "Pale Blue Dot". Essentially, what will be, will be.

A couple of decades ago I attended a lecture by Star Trek creator, Gene Roddenberry. We came for the Star Trek "bloopers" but the lecture stuck with me. Roddenberry said that all civilizations rise and fall; Babylonian, Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Ottoman and ours will as well. But something new WILL rise out of the ashes. What that may be is anyone's guess, but perhaps there is a glimmer of optimism there.

Cryptos We used to say in Tech Support: "Under promise and over deliver". I'm not that optimistic about the overall economy, but clearly we Boomers have probably enjoyed the optimum this planet can offer... at least for the next few centuries, anyway.

Kay Dennison said...

Physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer said,
"The optimist thinks this is the best of all possible worlds. The pessimist fears it is true."

And I think he's pretty much right and, depending on the day, I fall into either camp.

Antares Cryptos said...

Maybe buying less stuff will be "better".;)

I would love to read your recollection of the Roddenberry lecture. Mildly jealous.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Key Oppenheimer would be the guy to know; he had very mixed feelings about the development of the atomic bomb. When he voiced his conscience, he ended up losing his security clearance.

Cryptos Oh we'll be buying less. My medical coverage saps more and more of my disposable income every year, and that's just one example. Costs in every sector of the economy continue to rise; incomes, not so much.

I wish I could remember more of that Roddenberry lecture. That was back when I was married to my first wife, over 26 years ago. But the take home point was that the destruction or collapse of a civilization is inevitable, but also an evolutionary process from which a new one would emerge. I recall his stating that even if there were a world wide nuclear holocaust , some people would still survive and regroup. Interesting idea. I wonder what Roddenberry would think about the diminishing global energy resources were he alive today?

Secret Agent Woman said...

I'm not optimistic about how things are going, but I willfully set that aside in order to function.

Dawn @Lighten Up! said...

"...and the tenor of political discourse makes me feel like there are those among eager to return society back to the 19ths century"
Indeed, Robert, indeed. ;)

Tommykey said...

I tend to have an optimistic disposition, though I was not always that way. For me, optimism is what helps us to confront our problems and challenges and try to overcome or solve them. Act as if you still have a chance, and quite often you will.

Jayne said...

I'm afraid I may need some new friends, because I don't see that any of them are very optimistic. Then again, neither am I. But I refuse to be a pessimist.

I like the Alain de Botton quote that Elisabeth left in her comment.

I've bookmarked the video to find out more about the games our brain plays on us. I have a feeling I won't be too surprised by it. My brain plays endless games on me. ;)