Why We Think We Are Invincible

Is there a downside to optimism?

Posted Jun 26, 2017

Stephan | Creative Commons Flickr
Source: Stephan | Creative Commons Flickr

Last week Otto Warmbier, a 22-year-old college student who was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in North Korea died shortly after returning to the U.S. Warmbier had served more than 17 months for allegedly stealing a propaganda poster from his hotel. He had already been in a coma for more than a year at the time of his return and suffered extensive brain damage, which North Korean officials claim was caused by botulism and a sleeping pill.  

What happened to Warmbier was horrific, but not unusual or surprising, considering where he was. Since 1996, 15 other U.S. citizens have been detained in North Korea. Most of their crimes include illegal entry into the country, unauthorized religious activity or miscellaneous "hostile acts" against the state, which like Warmbier's case, can carry severe, decades-long sentences without a fair trial. To date, there are three Americans who are still believed to be imprisoned in North Korea: Tony Kim, Hak-Song Kim and Dong Chul Kim. 

Still, the Hermit Kingdom treats its own people far worse. In 2013, a U.N. Human Rights Council Commission conducted an extensive investigation of the regime and found it guilty of ongoing “extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, the forcible transfer of populations, the enforced disappearance of persons and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation.”

Stefan Krasowski | Creative Commons Flickr
Source: Stefan Krasowski | Creative Commons Flickr

Many of these crimes are detailed in the stories and accounts of defectors, those who risked their lives (and those of their loved ones) to escape North Korea and lived to tell about it. The New York Times bestseller, The Girl With Seven Names, is one of these harrowing, real-life accounts. Author Hyeonseo Lee's escape reads like a terrifying thriller or horror movie come to life. She describes the detached horror of witnessing public executions of friends and neighbors and attending weekly mandatory criticism sessions, where everyone (young or old) is forced to confess either their own wrongdoings or those of their peers. During these terrifying community surveillance sessions, it is not uncommon for friends and family members to turn on each other, as any loyalty is reserved only for the "dear leaders."

During the last 20 years, an estimated 29,000 North Koreans have fled the country to South Korea, usually by crossing into China and paying brokers to help them the rest of the way. This is a dangerous and expensive journey, one that can cost their lives and thousands of dollars. According to one defector, an escape route to Seoul now costs up to $40,000. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of others stay in China illegally, working menial jobs and trying to avoid capture. Those who are caught attempting to leave the country or found by Chinese authorities across the border are routinely returned to North Korea and treated as enemies of the state, often spending years enslaved in prison camps. According to the most recent Human Rights Watch report, hundreds of thousands of citizens, including children, are detained in prison camps and other detention facilities, where "they face deplorable conditions, sexual coercion and abuse, beating and torture by guards, and forced labor in dangerous and sometimes deadly conditions."

All of this information is widely reported in the news and easy to find, which is why I am bewildered by how many people are interested in visiting North Korea for tourism. While I, too, am fascinated by the reclusive country—I imagine going there must be something akin to time travel or visiting Mars—it is impossible to overlook the very clear and present danger associated with traveling to a country that routinely threatens to annihilate my own. Despite these threats, more than 800 Americans travel to North Korea every year. As it turns out, getting into the most difficult-to-get-into country on the planet is surprisingly easy—and affordable, costing about $1,000 for a five-night stay when going with a tour group, as Warmbier had done.

As Vox points out, these travel agencies seem to downplay if not entirely conceal "the possibility of risk for travelers on this trip on their websites, and instead presented the country as a hazard-free exotic destination." The Young Pioneers Tours' website (the group Warmbier traveled with) had even boasted, "Despite what you may hear, North Korea is probably one of the safest places on Earth to visit." (This line has since been taken down.)

Certainly knowing what we know about North Korea, this is a patently false statement. So why do people knowingly put themselves in dangerous situations by visiting there? 

Pexels | Creative Commons
Source: Pexels | Creative Commons

The answer may lie in our optimism bias which causes us to believe that we are luckier and less likely to experience negative events than the average person. It is why we assume that something bad would "never happen to us" or why we are convinced that we have the winning lottery ticket (until we don't). This cognitive bias effects the majority (80 percent!) of us and can help us live longer and healthier. Still, this positivity is not always a good thing, especially when it is not warranted, according to cognitive neuroscientist Tali Sharot. "We're more optimistic than realistic, but we are oblivious to the fact." And as Warmbier proves, excessive optimism can sometimes lead to dangerous consequences. 

Through her research, Sharot has found that warning signs do little to deflect or mitigate our risky behavior. Why? Because our brains might be hardwired for optimism. By recording brain activity using an MRI scanner, she was able to see that the brain responded better to positive, desirable information and failed at "integrating bad news about the future." Suddenly it makes sense why we often ignore warning labels and cautious advice.

Had Wall Street heeded the warnings of financial analysts back in 2003, perhaps the 2008 financial collapse could have been avoided. It's easy to blame bankers who were seduced by the promise of easy money or foolishly believed their industry was somehow "too big to fail," but they are not the only ones guilty of exuding overconfidence in their daily lives. When we take more than the recommended dosage of medicine or rely on luck instead of paying the parking meter, we rarely expect negative consequences from our actions. The optimism bias makes us believe we are invincible, that nothing bad will ever happen to us. It's hold is both powerful and irresistible—which is evident in every person who smokes, drives drunk, takes drugs...and goes to a place like North Korea. 

Learn more about Optimism Bias by watching Tali Sharot's TED Talk below:

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