Humans Exaggerate the Positive

Optimism saves us from seeing the world too accurately.

Posted May 03, 2018

“Humankind cannot bear too much reality” as poet T. S. Eliot put it. We see the world through rose-tinted glasses. Without them, we may get into trouble.

Positive psychology, as this recent field is called, suggests many good reasons for the evolution of an optimistic bias (1).

The Optimism Filter

The bias towards optimism may affect health. This phenomenon was suggested by the fact that people suffering from depression give more accurate answers when asked to assess their chances of victory in a game of chance (2). In other words, healthy individuals convince themselves that they are more likely to win than is truly the case. Evidently, the healthy population perceive themselves as winners.

This positive slant reveals itself in many areas of our lives. On the dating front, the majority of men see themselves as physically attractive. A casual visit to any random gathering of people is probably enough to convince most women that this cannot be true (2). Women evaluate their own attractiveness more accurately, possibly because the standards of attractiveness are more exacting, and because level of physical appeal has more of an impact in their social lives.

Another realm of our lives that is affected by a positivity bias is business investment and speculation. Once again we find that many men consider themselves to be talented investors whereas women are more realistic, as I pointed out in an earlier post. Interestingly, many women are convinced that men are better investors and seek male financial advisers.

The data say otherwise. Amongst individual investors, women produce consistently better returns. They do this by avoiding two key vices, excessive risk-taking and excessive trading.

Thanks to positive psychology, we are realizing that even if optimism is bad for investors, it is good for health and life expectancy (3). This fact suggests possible reasons for the evolution of an optimistic bias.

Darwinian Explanation

Optimism has some clear benefits that were highlighted by positive psychology and these would likely have improved survival and reproductive success amongst our ancestors.

Survival would have been favored by health advantages. Optimists seem to have more robust immune systems, helping them to fight off infections and diseases. This means that they live longer and can invest more in their children and grandchildren.

If healthier, they may be more socially active and better at forming alliances that would have beneficial consequences for their reproductive success, and that of their relatives.

Another bonus is that in addition to being more socially attractive, they may also be perceived as more sexually attractive given that these characteristics are correlated, particularly for men whose social prominence is generally attractive to women. Optimistic men may be more likely to make romantic advances to potential partners that would favor reproductive success.

There are risks attached to all kinds of risk-taking, of course. Those who are socially active risk offending others and getting involved in quarrels that may lead to damaging physical aggression and it is well known that men get into more serious disputes when they are actively dating (5).

On average, women are slightly lower on risk taking but that difference is currently disappearing. This may be because their survival was more important for the survival of children, favoring a more conservative approach to risk-taking. So excessive optimism would have had Darwinian costs if it promoted too much risk-taking.

Conclusion

It is healthy in terms of bodily well being and psychology if we can pick ourselves up after the many disappointments and failures we all experience. A dose of optimistic perception, including self-perception, may be what the doctor ordered.

Too much reality may hurt us. We do not perceive our lives accurately. After all, we evolved to be good at surviving, and reproducing, not to be ontological philosophers.

References

1 Seligman, M. E. P. (2012). Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being. New York: Atria Books.

2 Carson, R. C., Holton, S. D., and Shelton, R. C. (2010). Depressive realism an clinical depression. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 49, 257-265.

3 Jackson, L. (1992). Physical appearance and gender: Sociobiological and sociocultural perspectives. Albany: State University of New York Press.

4 Seligman, M. E. P. (1990). Learned optimism. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

5 Barber, N. (2009). Countries with fewer males have more violent crime: Marriage markets and mating aggression. Aggressive Behavior, 35, 49-56.