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Cynical Researchers Release Study that Suggests Optimists Just Ignore Bad Things

A recent study published in Nature Neuroscience suggests that optimists don’t “look on the bright side” so much as they “ignore the dark truth about the fragility and meaninglessness of life.” Ok, so it’s not that extreme, but the study shows that when presented with statistics that don’t bode well for them, an optimist will have signifigantly less brain activity in the frontal lobes, suggesting that they don’t process the information. Whether that’s an effective way (or the only way) to be an optimist is up for grabs.

The study, darkly titled How unrealistic optimism is maintained in the face of reality, was done by researchers at University College London. They took 14 people and rated them on their optimism. Subjects were then asked them how likely they thought it was that things on a list of 80 bad things (cancer, divorce) would happen to them, smacked by the researchers with the real statistic, and then asked again. As it turns out, the more optimistic people slid their second guess closer to the actual statistic every time, but a lot closer when the real number was better than they thought, and less close when it was worse. The more optimistic, the stronger the effect.

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Of course, this is Science!, so all the subjects were strapped to a carnivorous brain bug had their brain patterns monitored during the questionnaire. As it turns out, the more optimistic the subject, the less frontal lobe activity was present when the subject had to adjust their original guess to something less palatable. Say, if an optimist originally guessed his likehood to get cancer was 15% and it turned out to really be 25%, he’d have less brain activity while saying 17% than a less optimistic person who was responding 22%. I totally made those numbers up, but the point is that the decreased brain activity in the frontal lobe is basically the brain sticking its fingers in its ears and ignoring reality. Maybe pessimists are right in calling themselves realists after all. (I think we are.)

In the bigger picture, it all seems to make sense. Think about how optimists would look at this study. And now about how pessimists would react to said optimists. It’s like the entire pessimist versus optimist relationship boiled down into a simple experiment where the optimists gleefully think “well I’m still pretty lucky though…” and the pessimists walk around flailing clipboards and screaming “Look at the numbers! You are not a beautiful or unique snowflake!” How are optimists supposed to deal with this kind of data besides ignore it or think that it doesn’t apply to them anyways? Refute it, I guess, but they’d have to be able to.

In the end, while optimism does have its health benefits, it seems more and more likely that those benefits come at the cost of simply ignoring the fact of the matter. Dr. Tali Sharot, stresses that despite its benefits, “the negative aspect is that we underestimate risks.” And fittingly enough, that also seems to be an apt description of what optimism actually is.

(via BBC News)

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