The Potential Emptiness of Half Full

Neuroscientist Dr. Tali Sharot has been working on a theory she calls “Optimism Bias.” Some of her research centered around asking people questions, getting them to assign a percentage to various positive and negative outcomes, and then measuring the actual percentages.

Guess what? We tend to underestimate negative possibilities and overestimate positive ones. When you think about human evolution this makes sense. After all, fitness advantages likely went to those who thought a particular new day would be better than the one before. Negative Nancy has the disadvantage of not believing she is capable of things that Positive Patty is. While Positive Patty might overestimate, for example, her ability to outrun a predator, her belief that she could pushed her abilities to the max, while Nancy starved hiding in a cave because she “knew” she couldn’t, it was just too dangerous out there.

And so this bias became hardwired in us. People overestimate, for example, their place in the economic strata. Lower-lower class think that they are middle- or upper-lower class, and so on right up to the upper class. And that was before the GOP succeeded in convincing trailer dwellers that they and people like Donald Trump have something in common, that they are just alike. It can only have gotten worse since then.

This built-in delusion mechanism, however, has served us well. “Can-do” has long been a human trait in all kinds of inspirational media. It has undoubtedly lead to humanity becoming the dominant species on the planet every bit as much as intelligence itself.

It is, of course, also what could very likely spell our doom. After all, positiveness without data, while it allows us to go on with our daily lives without worrying constantly about this or that, also leads to inaction when there perhaps should be action.

Take climate change, for example. We believe deniers {now to be called doubters by the Associated Press, who has adjusted its style book because deniers complained that it made them sound like Holocaust deniers} want to believe someone when they are told that climate change, global warming is a hoax. That is actually being optimistic.

Then the rest of us, having our brains filled with candy via television of those hardworking spies and police whose only thought is how to protect them and their children from the big bad Muslims, means that the government must be altruistic. Someone must be doing something about climate change, they’re just keeping it secret from us, is what they think. But ‘Superman’ frequently looks more like Machiavelli when you pay attention without bias.

This is the problem. Even those of us who know something is rotten {mass surveillance, pro-business/anti-public legislation/legal rulings, etc.} do not yet grep just how bad it is. We don’t want to focus on that, of course, because it can be demoralizing, debilitating. “If it is as bad as Chris suggests, what can be done about it?”

Knowledge is the first step. Acceptance is the second. Calming down is the third. Then, deciding how to proceed is the fourth. We can be positive, but we have to understand the underpinnings of a problem before we can actually fix anything.

For example, I don’t think you can get money out of politics without also dealing with the lack of a barrier between the private sector and the intelligence community. They each protect the other, but this is not obvious. We are still talking as though, for example, electing Elizabeth Warren would fix all our problems. Brief diversion here regarding her interview on Colbert last night, but $10 billion is not a lot of money to recover compared with how much they have stolen and continue to steal. It’s not even a traffic ticket, more like loose change. End diversion.

Finally, because I like a plot twist, this is not the post I actually wanted you to read. This is just the post preparing you for the next one.



  1. […] own built-in, hardwired optimism that the following cannot possibly be […]

  2. […] See optimism bias. You can’t run around taking care of business worrying today about the collapse of magnetic […]

  3. […] whatever it is that the multinationals want to keep on doing. The photo is a great example of Optimism Bias, aka waiting for Superman aka “He’s Not Coming, Lol.” […]

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