Being too optimistic linked to ‘faulty’ function of the brain

Last Updated: Oct 10, 2011, 14:16 PM IST

London: Researchers have found that people who are very optimistic about the outcome of events tend to learn only from information that reinforces their rose-tinted view of the world, and is related to ‘faulty’ function of their brains’ frontal lobes.

People’s predictions of the future are often unrealistically optimistic.

A problem that has puzzled scientists for decades is why human optimism is so pervasive, when reality continuously confronts us with information that challenges these biased beliefs.

“Seeing the glass as half full rather than half empty can be a positive thing – it can lower stress and anxiety and be good for our health and well-being,” explained Dr Tali Sharot at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging at UCL (University College London).

“But it can also mean that we are less likely to take precautionary action, such as practising safe sex or saving for retirement. So why don’t we learn from cautionary information?” he stated.

In this new study, Dr Sharot and Professor Ray Dolan, together with Christoph Korn from the Berlin School of Mind and Brain have found that our failure to alter optimistic predictions when presented with conflicting information is due to errors in how we process the information in our brains.

Using a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner, the team found increased activity in the frontal lobes of the brain of all participants when the information given was better than expected, this activity actively processed the information to recalculate an estimate.

However, when the information was worse than estimated, the more optimistic a participant was, the less efficiently activity in these frontal regions coded for it, suggesting they were disregarding the evidence presented to them.

“Our study suggests that we pick and choose the information that we listen to. The more optimistic we are, the less likely we are to be influenced by negative information about the future,” Dr Sharot said.

“This can have benefits for our mental health, but there are obvious downsides.

“Many experts believe the financial crisis in 2008 was precipitated by analysts overestimating the performance of their assets even in the face of clear evidence to the contrary,” he added.

The study was published in Nature Neuroscience.

ANI