So we know now (and in fact we knew already) that we have this optimism bias, and consistently and predictably expect things to turn out better for ourselves(though not for others) than they actually do. What follows?
Tali Sharot suggested we can incorporate this knowledge into our planning decisions, and indicated that the Government indeed have in their Green Book but somehow this feels too simplistic.
For starters, it sounds suspiciously like contingency planning with a bit of extra scientific backing. You know that you consistently mis-predict, mis-assess and so forth, so you factor that in. It is different from having a bit extra for unexpected events, but not that different.
In any case there is a deeper problem.
During a book tour of his own a few weeks ago Daniel Kahneman was speaking about cognitive biases more generally. In an interview with Oliver Burkeman he made the telling remark: ”It’s not a case of: ‘Read this book and then you’ll think differently,’” he says. “I’ve written this book, and I don’t think differently.”
Tali Sharot’s argument, combined with Kahneman’s comment reminded me of the wonderful Hofstadter’s law:
it is not so easy to trick ourselves into not tricking ourselves.
“It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take Hofstadter’s law into account.”
In other words, it is not so easy to trick ourselves into not tricking ourselves. Sharot seems to suggest that the optimism bias is adaptive, and that it is broadly a good thing, but again this feels like an answer designed to reduce dissonance rather than being fully thought through. In this respect I have sympathy with Jules Evans who argues that The Optimism Bias is unduly pessimistic about our ability to change ourselves.
The issue, of course, is HOW to we go about changing? (And how much does this matter?)
My first set of scribbles in response to Sharot’s book was “This is about a deluded sense of self rather than optimism…”
This point goes beyond the scope of this blog, and I have written about it before but my impression is that our best hope in addressing biases are forms of psychological or spiritual practice that lead us to transform our fundamental sense of who we are. There may be no short-cut out of delusion.
One finding of many that might support this claim is the curious discovery that Buddhist meditators are more conventionally ‘rational’ in classic behavioural economics experiments i.e. they are more self-interested, and care less about norms of fairness and reciprocity. The stock response to this curious finding is that Buddhists are not so kind and compassionate after all! However, it looks to me more like they are much more aware of what is going on than most participants, and fully grasp that this is a game they are playing, and not a proxy for the human feelings and relations that actually matter, and which they experience more acutely than most. If you are genuinely altruistic, you have less need of altruistic punishment. Similarly, if you have an experiential (rather than merely conceptual) grasp of how the mind distorts reality, you may be better able to prevent it doing so in practice.
The issue of cognitive bias matters hugely in general, but when you consider the major issues of our time, not least the climate crisis and the debt crisis, both are arguably grounded in problems relating to optimism.
I am not saying that we should all just meditate and everything will be ok (that would be too optimistic!) but it might be a more fruitful ‘so-what’ to fall out of our awareness of the optimism bias.
I am very much looking forward to chairing tomorrow’s event featuring neuroscientist Tali Sharot where she will be speaking about her book The Optimism Bias: Why We’re Wired to Look on the Bright Side.
The sub-heading is important, reminding us, no doubt intentionally, of the famous Monty Python Sketch which has to be one of the most inspired endings to a film, ever. ( My favourite line is: “Always look on the bright side of death, just before you draw your terminal breath…”)
The book is a very comfortable read, and contains many arresting and profoundly important ideas. The idea with perhaps the greatest relevance to the RSA is in chapter four, which is about the curious co-existence of private optimism and public despair. Crudely, we invariably think the world is falling apart, but that we are going to just fine.
This curious fact, repeated in countless studies, is the empirical basis behind the RSA’s efforts to narrow or close ‘The Social Aspiration Gap‘, which I think of as the gap between our aspirations for the world we live in, and the world we are currently complicit in creating through our actions(or lack of them). I have noticed that Matthew Taylor tends to apologise for using the term, ‘social aspiration gap’ on the grounds that it is inelegant or jargony, but personally I find it a very clear and compelling expression. Indeed, it was one of the main reasons I decided to join the RSA.
Our expectation regarding the future of our society will be positive or negative depending on which view feeds private optimism best – Tali Sharot
In a fascinating paragraph towards the end of chapter four, Tali Sharot builds on the idea that private optimism is an adaptive trait that we need to survive, and that it is important enough to lead us to distort evidence in whatever way will protect it (from page 71, slightly abbreviated):
“At the end of the day, our expectation regarding the future of our society will be positive or negative depending on which view feeds private optimism best. During tranquil times, public pessimism may fuel private optimism by way of comparison. So when the world is doing okay, having a pessimistic view of society while maintaining optimistic beliefs about our own future means that not only do we expect to do better; we expect to do better while others do badly. This gives us the illusion of superiority. It does not mean we are ill-wishers; it merely suggests that the rosy spectacles we use to view our future are not worn when examining the future of fellow citizens. In fact, we often use dark shades to assess the future of our country.
However, when society reaches unprecedented lows that affect our personal lives directly, the only way for our situation to improve is to take the rest of the world upwards with us….this is the time that people turn to bearers of good news such as Barack Obama…that is when optimism sweeps the world. Or at least it does until the economy stabilises, at which point we are quite happy to go back to public pessimism.”
To fully make sense of that claim, and how it links to the social aspiration gap, you will need to read the book, or return here soon after the event when I hope to report back.
P.S. Having recently been seduced by Twitter, I now know why I should say that the hash tag for the event is #RSAsharot.
Happy New Year from the Social Brain!
Here at the RSA, we like to be optimistic. We even like to be optimistic about the potential of human nature – something that is deeply unfashionable these days. By a slightly circuitous route I’m going to argue here that we can be quite optimistic about 2009 and beyond, because we can be optimistic about human nature in general.
My boss, Matthew Taylor, has spoken about the fact that the conception of the self (and concomitantly of agency) we have inherited from the Enlightenment, is no longer tenable given what we know about how people think, feel and act. Experiments like those carried out by Benjamin Libett have exposed as myth the idea that all our decisions and actions flow from an adjudicating and executive self. Much of what we think, say and do is actually triggered by sub-personal psychological mechanisms. And cases like that of Phineas Gage, made popular by Antonio Damasio, have shown us that despite the myth of a logical, purely rational self, when we do make self-conscious decisions, these are only possible because our emotions are fully integrated with our rational powers (emotions make possible the appearing salient of one choice over another, and thus the very possibility of making a decision at all). Moreover, behavioural economics (and recent events) have given the lie to the Chicago School conception of ‘economic man’ as the right one to understand economic agency.
This might seem to put the RSA in a bit of a pickle. We are an institution with its roots in the Enlightenment, and proud of this fact too. So how can we be optimistic about human nature in the classical Enlightenment sense, if the Enlightenment self has been exposed as fraud?
Matthew Taylor also blogged a while ago about Zadie Smith’s quite excellent article in the New York Review of Books. In the article, Smith discusses lucidly, honestly and eloquently the fact that many writers are committed to a form of expression (lyrical realism) which is still wedded to the Enlightenment conception of the self ( a self from which nothing is hidden from view, as it were). Smith likens this form of expression to neural pathways we are stuck in – engrained grooves of thinking and feeling that are familiar and comfortable but which don’t accurately represent how we actually experience the world. Being stuck in these grooves is not good for literature because part of its remit is to give expression to the latter.
Smith admits she is partly guilty of conformism to lyrical realism. But she points to another style of writing, citing Tom Mcarthy’s Remainder as its apogee. This form of expression eschews the full transparency and authenticity of the Enlightenment self, and (somewhat ideologically) commits itself to depicting where the latter comes up short (where it is not transparent to itself, where it is inauthentic). I have my own reservations about this particular literary approach (it is set up almost wholly in opposition to lyrical realism, so to my mind is still beholden to it). But I accept wholeheartedly that what we want from our writers in the twenty-first century is, well, an honest portrayal of what it’s like to be a self in the twenty-first century.
Remainder sets to that task with iconoclastic relish and much dark humour. But perhaps rejecting the Enlightenment self needn’t go hand in hand with its nihilism? Perhaps it can go hand in had with a continued optimism about human nature?
How so? Experiments in neuroscience on brain plasticity suggest that neural pathways can always be reconfigured – that the grooves we think and feel in are just that, rather than fixed routes. So we are perfectly capable of reshaping our imagination, of thinking and feeling differently where need be. In the current economic climate there is much pessimism. But why? Surely, the credit crunch, despite its obvious immediate hardships, is also a great opportunity? It’s a chance to reassess what’s important. Moreover, the conception of self and agency that is emerging from the rubble of the Enlightenment notion of authenticity is not necessarily inauthentic and nihilistic. For it turns out that being a self is a far more social affair than we took it to be. How we perceive ourselves, what makes us happy and contented, the very content of our minds, all this is determined by things and others external to ourselves. But why is that a problem? Why does that make us inauthentic apart from in terms of a rather crude opposition to classical Enlightenment authenticity? Surely being a thoroughly socially and environmentally embedded self means only that the world is open to us in a different way than we previously thought, rather than not open to us to understand and work with in a positive way at all? In fact, the chances of bringing about lasting social progress on this new conception are better not worse, because it pictures us change-makers as social creatures dependent on our environments. And we need to think of ourselves more like that, not less.
So that’s my pitch for optimism in 2009. We have a chance to change things, we are perfectly capable of changing things, and the way in which we can change them is actually better than the way the classical Enlightenment conception of the self promised. So it’s Enlightenment social progress without the Enlightenment self. It’s an optimism about the potential of human nature without the Enlightenment conception of that nature.
All we need now is a political class with the vision to see this.