Tali Sharot: Are We Natural Optimists? Cognitive neuroscientist Tali Sharot makes the case for why humans are wired to have what she calls an "optimism bias."
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Are We Natural Optimists?

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Are We Natural Optimists?

Are We Natural Optimists?

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It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today, The Case For Optimism. And it turns out...

TALI SHAROT: Most of the people on earth are optimists, even if they don't know it.

RAZ: This is Tali Sharot. She's a neuroscientist who's been studying optimism for more than a decade. And when she says we're all optimists even if we don't know it, she's talking about an idea from psychology known as the optimism bias. And it's the idea we all carry around in our heads that our future selves are always going to be a little bit better than who we are today.

SHAROT: And the reason for this is that people believe we have more control over our life than we actually do. Let me give you an example

RAZ: Sure.

SHAROT: So most graduate students, MBA graduate students for example, will expect to get higher salaries than they end up getting. On average, people expect to be married for more years than they end up being married. They expect their kids to be more talented than they end up.

RAZ: That is the optimism bias. In almost every arena of life, we expect the future will be better than the past.

SHAROT: In general, people expect to be professionally more successful and healthier than we end up being. And that's true around the world. It's true in different ages. It's true in females and males. So it's quite a general thing.

RAZ: But of course, life is unpredictable, and not everyone's future is going to be better than their past. So the question is why. Is the optimism bias maybe a way of improving our outlook on life, making us happier even?


SHAROT: So some people say no.

RAZ: Here's Tali's explanation from the TED stage.


SHAROT: Some people say the secret to happiness is low expectations.


SHAROT: I think the logic goes something like this. If we don't expect greatness, if we don't expect to find love and be healthy and successful, well, we're not going to be disappointed when these things don't happen. And if we're not disappointed when good things don't happen and we're pleasantly surprised when they do, we will be happy.

So it's a very good theory. But it turns out to be wrong. Whatever happens, whether you succeed or you fail, people with high expectations always feel better because how we feel when we get dumped or win employee of the month depends on how we interpret that event.


RAZ: OK. So if the key is how we interpret news, does that mean optimists are happier because they can, like, reframe bad news?

SHAROT: Yeah. So what optimists tend to do is look at what happens to them in life and interpret it in a specific way. So let's say you're an engineer. And you're working on a project. And the project succeeds. So when something good happens, the optimists say, oh, this definitely shows that I'm a really good engineer.

But not only am I not a good engineer, I am just good at doing anything really in general. So they kind of generalize from one good thing to a lot of good things, right? And when something bad happens, let's say you've worked on this project but it failed. It just doesn't work. They believe that that is because of something that's not stable, just something more random and therefore not something that's going to affect their life in the future.


SHAROT: Regardless of the outcome, the pure act of anticipation makes us happy. This is, by the way, why people prefer Friday to Sunday. It's a really curious fact because Friday is a day of work and Sunday is a day of pleasure, so you would assume that people will prefer Sunday. But they don't.

People prefer Friday because Friday brings with it the anticipation of the weekend ahead, all the plans that you have. And that anticipation enhances their well-being. In fact, without the optimism bias, we would all be slightly depressed. People with mild depression, they don't have a bias when they look into the future. They're actually more realistic than people - healthy individuals. But individuals with severe depression, they have a pessimistic bias. So they tend to expect the future to be worse than it ends up being. Controlled experiments have shown that optimism is not only related to success; it leads to success. Optimism leads to success in academia, in sports, in politics. And maybe the most surprising benefit of optimism is health. If we expect the future to be bright, stress and anxiety are reduced.


RAZ: So if optimism can make us healthier, like, make us more successful, it can, I mean, it can really change our objective reality.

SHAROT: Yeah. So the idea is that if you expect something, it's going to change your actions. And your actions are going to change reality, right? So if you expect to be really good at what you do, then you put more effort into it. And it ends up being that you are better at what you do.

And it goes the other way. If you think, I'm not going to get that promotion, you don't try to get it. And then you don't get it. And so in that sense, what you believe is going to change what you do. And what you do is going to change the world you live in.


SHAROT: So all in all, optimism has lots of benefits. But the question that was really confusing to me was, how do we maintain optimism in the face of reality? We asked people to come into our lab in order to try and figure out what was going on. We asked them to estimate their likelihood of experiencing different terrible events in their lives. So for example, what is your likelihood of suffering from cancer?

And then we told them the average likelihood of someone like them to suffer these misfortunes. So cancer, for example, is about 30 percent. What we wanted to know was whether people will take the information that we gave them to change their beliefs. And indeed, they did. So, for example, if someone said, my likelihood of from suffering from cancer is about 50 percent, and we said, hey, good news, the average likelihood is only 30 percent, the next time around, they would say, well, maybe my likelihood is about 35 percent.

So they learned quickly and efficiently. But if someone started off saying, my average likelihood of suffering from cancer is about 10 percent and we said, hey, bad news, the average likelihood is about 30 percent, the next time around they would say, yep, still think it's about 11 percent.


SHAROT: What this means is that warning signs such as disease may only have limited impact. Yes, smoking kills - but mostly kills the other guy.


RAZ: So final question, is there a way to undo the optimism bias to help us be more realistic about our future selves? Well, to find out, Tali set up an experiment. And she used a tool called TMS, which stands for Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation.

SHAROT: Which is basically a magnet. So taking that magnet, you could change a specific activity in a specific region of someone's brain. So we took a group of people...

RAZ: And the specific region of the brain Tali wanted to target is called the left inferior frontal gyrus, which is roughly located behind your left temple.

SHAROT: We knew that that part of the brain is important for how people process information.

RAZ: Specifically, positive information - it's a place in your brain that plays a role in deciding whether news is good or bad. And Tali thought it might be where the optimism bias lives. So she took some volunteers, she fired up the big magnet and held it over that part of their brains. And she asked the following questions.

SHAROT: What is your likelihood that you'll get divorced? What is the likelihood that your bike will be stolen? What is the likelihood that you will break your arm?

RAZ: These are the kinds of questions people might answer optimistically in an ordinary survey. But in this instance, after the magnet was turned on, their answers were, well, different.

SHAROT: We we made them more pessimistic.

RAZ: Wait. You turned optimistic people into pessimists?

SHAROT: We changed the way that they process information. We made them more attuned to negative information, more likely to take that negative information...

RAZ: Wow.

SHAROT: ...To change their beliefs. And as a consequence, this kind of knowledge can also help with depression. In the case of depression, you don't want to make people more pessimistic. You want to make them more optimistic.

RAZ: Yeah.

SHAROT: But there's ways to figure out, well, if this works, you know, to make people more attuned to negative information, maybe this other thing would work to make them more attuned to positive. So that's the hope.

RAZ: And so Tali says in the end, being positive is not always a good thing when we're thinking about our future, when we need to be realistic about risks, about the possibility that yeah, something bad might happen down the road. But the flipside is that optimism makes risk possible. It helps us take chances and explore opportunities we might otherwise not, which Tali says can lead to big things.

SHAROT: We need optimism to explore. And if you think back to our ancestors, for them to get out of their cave, for them to get out of Africa and explore the rest of the world, they had to have some kind of expectation that there's something out there that's better, that's better than what they had. And that's really kind of a driving force.

RAZ: Tali Sharot, she's a neuroscientist at University College in London. You can see her entire talk at ted.com.

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