As a society, we have lived and will continue to live through war, experience tragedy, witness injustice, and walk amongst people who wear socks with sandals every, single day. With such overwhelming information challenging any resemblance of an upbeat forecast, how is it that sane and seemingly rational people still maintain hope for the future?
We like to think of ourselves as rational creatures. We look both ways before we cross the road and smell the milk before we drink. But both neuroscience and social science suggest that our so-called rationalism is a mere misconception. Overall, we expect things to end up better than what statistical probability indicates. We hugely underestimate our chances of being diagnosed with cancer, losing a job or getting divorced, and overestimate our future achievements and total lifespan.
So how does optimism about our personal future remain so incredible resilient?
Perhaps it’s because we all carry within us an evolutionarily engrained susceptibility to what is known as the “optimism bias.” The optimism bias causes a person to believe that they are less at risk of experiencing a negative event than what statistics imply.
The optimism bias is such a powerful force that it not only acts to protect us, but it inspires us to achieve great heights. Without optimism, we would look at our odds in life and recognize, realistically so, that we might as well just jump from the nearest high-rise and end it all right now. Without optimism, our ancestors may have never ventured far from their tribes in search for a better life. Hell, we could’ve all still remained cave dwellers pathetically huddling together, freezing cold around a fire.
Optimism encourages us to be adventurous, to love, to take risks and to hope. Studies show that divorced optimists are more likely to remarry than their pessimistic counterparts – an act that is considered to be the “triumph of hope over experience.” Apparently, even the illusion of a better future can provide those cursed with the optimism bias clear benefits in the present.
While it sounds like a harmless pair of rose colored glasses, the optimism bias does have a dark site. Oftentimes, overly positive assumptions can lead to disastrous miscalculations. They can make us skimp on sunscreen, avoid the doctor’s office or act careless towards our retirement accounts. Unrealistic optimism can lead to faulty planning, risky behavior, and even financial collapse.
In the end of the day it may not matter if it’s a good thing or a bad thing. Evolutionarily speaking, it may be simply a thing. A growing body of scientific evidence has found optimism is hardwired by evolution into the human brain. It makes sense when you think about it, as positive expectations naturally enhance our odds of survival.
Positive thinking about our prospects requires us to imagine ourselves in the future. Optimism starts with what is perhaps the most fascinating of human talents: cognitive time travel. We possess the ability to move back and forth through time and space in our own minds.
Cognitive time travel is truly the jewel of natural selection. It allows us to plan ahead, save resources for times of scarcity and endure hard work in anticipation of a future reward. It lets us conceptualize how our current behavior may influence future generations. If we could not engage in cognitive time travel, would we save money, eat healthy, or recycle? Would we even have children?
While cognitive time travel has some clearly awesome survival-oriented advantages, it came to us at an enormous price: the understanding that somewhere in an imagined future, death awaits around the bend. Without hardwired optimism, the awareness of mortality would have easily led to the end of evolution as fear and despair would have interfered with our daily functioning.
However, thanks to the beauty of conscious mental time travel, knowledge of death emerged side by side with the persistent and irrational ability to picture a brighter future. As such, death and hope have evolved into an inseparable twosome, a complex yet complimentary duality without which, the cycles of humanity would come to a halt.
Just because we are aware of the optimism bias does not dilute the power of its illusion. And I think that’s a good thing. Instead, it allows us the opportunity to actively find the balance between attempting to protect from its follies while allowing ourselves to fall blissfully prey to its hopeful melodies.