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The Optimism Bias

A Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brain

By Tali Sharot
15-minute read
Audio available
The Optimism Bias: A Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brain by Tali Sharot

The Optimism Bias (2011) demonstrates the interesting and entertaining ways in which our rose-tinted glasses color our experience of the world – and why it’s a good thing that they do. Though they won’t enable you to take off those rosy specs, these blinks will at least afford you some insight into why you wear them, and how you can use them to your benefit.

  • Proponents of psychology
  • Those curious to know why their personal plans never seem to work out
  • People who believe that humans behave rationally

Tali Sharot is an associate professor of cognitive neuroscience at University College in London, and is a winner of the British Psychological Society’s Book Award. She is also the author of The Science of Optimism.

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The Optimism Bias

A Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brain

By Tali Sharot
  • Read in 15 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 9 key ideas
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The Optimism Bias: A Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brain by Tali Sharot
Synopsis

The Optimism Bias (2011) demonstrates the interesting and entertaining ways in which our rose-tinted glasses color our experience of the world – and why it’s a good thing that they do. Though they won’t enable you to take off those rosy specs, these blinks will at least afford you some insight into why you wear them, and how you can use them to your benefit.

Key idea 1 of 9

The human mind is not rational, but prone to bias.

People like to view themselves as rational beings. In fact, this belief is so central to our self-perception that we even included it in the name of our species: Homo sapiens, the “wise man.” However, as you’ll soon discover, we may have been a bit too optimistic.

Why? The way we perceive reality is simply not rational; often, it’s full of bias. To get an idea of just how biased we are, consider the following questions and then rate yourself relative to the rest of the population: Do you play well with others? Are you a good driver? How honest are you?

So, did you rate yourself in the bottom 25 percent, the top 25 percent or somewhere in between?

If you’re like most people you will have rated yourself above average. Maybe even in the top 25 percentile!

Of course, it’s statistically impossible for this to actually be the case. How can most people be better than the rest? This phenomenon, one of many that shapes our perception of the world, is called superiority bias.

It’s hard to avoid such delusional thoughts about the world around us. We tend to trust our perceptions, and thus don’t realize that the way we see the world is usually misguided.

To demonstrate this point, consider a study conducted by cognitive scientist Petter Johansson. In the experiment, participants were given pairs of photos depicting different women, and were tasked with deciding which of the two they found more attractive.

They were asked later to explain their choices. But this time they were given pictures of the women they had actually rated lower. Seventy-five percent of the time, the participants didn’t even notice the switch, and thus justified a choice they hadn’t actually made.

Even stranger, when asked afterward if they thought they would hypothetically notice such a switch, 84 percent of those that had just been fooled confidently exclaimed that they would easily detect such trickery.

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