Wikimedia Common Commons
Source: Wikimedia Common Commons

Imagine yourself standing on a street corner choking on smoke and soot while fires leap from buildings overhead. Everyone panics, while someone asks you, “What does the future hold?”

“Better than this,” you say.

Seem unlikely? It’s a fact that human brains are predisposed to such sunny outlooks.

Psychology calls our skewed vision of the future “optimism bias.” It describes our innate propensity to see things in a positive light. Our hard–wired cognitive bias draws us toward information and beliefs that importantly keep us moving forward no matter how bleak our current situation. Optimism bias is  an evolutionary survival tactic.

Of course, what the future actually holds is anyone’s guess—and plenty try to divine it. Some predictions, ground in scientific methods, can be surprisingly accurate such as the future of weather forecasts or the economy as plotted by stock predictions. Every morning the local paper offers horoscopes detailing your day ahead. Logic tells us that these divinations are far from scientific. Yet by mere coincidence these pseudo–scientific insights can seem eerily accurate, while entire industries may tremble upon hearing some not-so-sound projections.

Why? It turns out that your acceptance of any prediction has less to do with reality than with one’s innate positivity.

Tali Sharot, a cognitive neuroscientist from University College London, explained the phenomenon to TIME:

You might expect optimism to erode under the tide of news about violent conflicts, high unemployment, tornadoes and floods and all the threats and failures that shape human life. Collectively we can grow pessimistic – about the direction of our country or the ability of our leaders to improve education and reduce crime. But private optimism, about our personal future, remains incredibly resilient.

Perhaps that explains why many people overlooked the Carl Sagan quote that recently rocked the Twitter–verse:  

@exitthelemming on Twitter
Carl Sagan's prediction of America's future went viral
Source: @exitthelemming on Twitter

The passage in question comes from Sagan’s book Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, first published in 1995:

“Science is more than a body of knowledge; it is a way of thinking. I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time—when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness.” (My emphasis)

Did Carl Sagan predict the future? Not exactly.

Fickr, Sebastian Niedlich
Source: Fickr, Sebastian Niedlich

It’s just cognitive bias at work again. Just as may people overlooked Sagan’s pessimistic quote in 1995, brains today are primed to confirm existing beliefs by validating Sagan’s prediction. Is the prediction eerie? It seems like it, but only if you’re among those who believe that what he wrote in 1995 does, in fact, apply today.

Keep in mind that the rest of Sagan’s novel focuses on the “toxic television” prevalent during that era. The sage astronomer lamented the popularity of Beavis and Butthead. Indeed, it was the tendency toward shallowness that he blamed for society’s impending downfall. So perhaps that same critic would now find himself comforted by the success of shows like HBO’s Westworld and PBS's Sherlock. If the TV habits that once spelled doom have changed, perhaps it is also possible that other things are better, too.

It all depends on the human brain. We may be living in a foretold doomsday, or we may be on a path to greatness. It all depends on how you look at it!

Click here to leave a comment, or to email Dr. Cytowic and receive his low-frequency newsletter and a copy of Digital Distractions: Your Brain on Screens. Follow @Cytowic, check him out at LinkedIn, or at his website, Cytowic.net.

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