How Optimism Bias Affects Our Future Planning
“Welcome to Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.”
How often have you been driving along on an empty road, with nobody visible for miles and miles – or at least to the next terrain feature – when a car comes along from a crossing road, and, instead of waiting for you to go by, pulls out right in front of you, and goes about 15 miles per hour under the speed limit?
“Driving wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for all of the other idiots on the road,” you think to yourself.
OK. Maybe it’s only me. I doubt it, though. According to neuroscientist Tali Sharot, 93% of college students believe that they are above average drivers. We almost all suffer from what is called optimism bias, or, to use a more connotative term, narcissism bias.
It’s generally in human nature to be optimistic. Our memories are stored in an area called the hippocampus, which interacts with the frontal cortex to create a narrative about the events that we have experienced in the past, and, using those memories, to construct a vision of what will happen in the future.
Sometimes those memories aren’t so great. I can recount many a time when I have screwed up in my life (for a couple of these stories, check out Credit Cards Stopped Me From Working for the WWE and My Most Mortifying Money Moment), and if I dwelled on those times, then I’d risk living out a negative life. It’s called a self-fulfilling prophecy – when your perception about how the future will turn out actually comes true because you alter your behavior to make that outcome happen. When you have a pessimistic view of the world, then things usually turn out to be negative.
How Does Monkey Brain Avoid the Blues?
If you’ve ever heard someone tell you a story about catching a fish, or, better yet, about how the big one got away, each time you hear it, the fish gets bigger and bigger. Or, as one t-shirt said, “The older I get, the better I was.” The hippocampus isn’t exactly the best at recalling every single detail that ever happened in our lives. Instead, it takes a little literary license and revises history. After all, history was written by the winners, and since you are still here and kicking, your hippocampus plays Toynbee and rewrites your personal history to make you look better to yourself. It’s not malicious; it’s to keep you from being pessimistic about the world. The narrative that the hippocampus feeds to the frontal cortex is a revised, more optimistic one, to allow you to think more highly about yourself.
You: “Boy, that girl really didn’t like my joke about the horse and the bar.”
Monkey Brain: “DUMB HUMAN. SHE WANTED YOU. SHE JUST DIDN’T REALIZE IT BEFORE SHE LEFT BAR.”
You: “You’re right. I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and gosh darn it, people like me!”
There are all sorts of benefits that you get from playing revisionist historian inside your mind, such as lowered stress, higher energy, and, potentially, a longer life.
But, it’s not all rainbows and unicorns being ridden by monkeys covered in suits of armor made from bacon (though it should be, darn it). There’s a downside to all of this rewriting of your personal history book.
When Monkey Brain Allows Revised Histories to Make Himself Cocky
Jason Hull is a Fort Worth fee only, hourly financial planner who serves clients in Fort Worth, TX and Dallas, TX as well as serving clients nationwide.
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