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How Cognitive Biases Bend Reality: Private Optimism vs. Public Despair | Neuroscientist Tali Sharot

Think you’re not an optimist? Neuroscience begs to differ. Dr. Tali Sharot explains that 80% of people globally present with the optimism bias—even if they describe themselves as pessimists or realists. In a nutshell, the optimism bias is the tendency to think that the future will be better than the past or present, and to underestimate negative experiences, and overestimate positive ones. This is neither a good nor bad thing, but rather it’s both: we evolved to be optimistic because our primordial ancestors needed to think that there was something better out there, beyond the cave, in order to survive, migrate, and evolve. Optimism is a powerful motivator and has proven health benefits, but it also has downsides. Here, Sharot explains that delicate balance, and how understanding the nature of our cognitive biases can help us better protect ourselves against failure. This video was filmed at the Los Angeles Hope Festival, a collaboration between Big Think and Hope & Optimism, a three-year initiative which supported interdisciplinary academic research into significant questions that remain under-explored.

Read more at BigThink.com: http://bigthink.com/videos/tali-sharot-the-truth-about-optimism-and-how-to-manage-your-biases

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Transcript: I’m going to ask you to imagine your future. So imagine yourself five years from now, ten years from now, 15 years from now. Think about your family, think about your relationships, think about your career. Really try to get vivid images in your mind. So my first question is: who here comes up with positive images? Just put your hand up. Okay. Yes, that’s quite normal.

And now I’m going to ask you four specific questions. Number one: if you’re currently married what is the likelihood that you will get divorced? Ten percent, 50 percent, 90 percent. So don’t tell us, just keep it in your mind. Number two: how optimistic are you about your family? Slightly optimistic, very optimistic, not so optimistic. Number three: how optimistic are you about the other people and other families in this room? And number four: what are the chances that you will prosper financially and professionally? And now let’s see how other people answer these questions.

We’ll start with marriage. So in the Western world divorce rates are about 40 percent. That means that out of every five couples walking down the aisle, two will end up splitting their assets. But when you ask newlyweds about their own likelihood of divorce they estimate it at around zero percent. And even divorce lawyers, who should really know better, hugely underestimate their own likelihood of divorce. Now it turns out that optimists are not less likely to divorce but they are more likely to remarry. In the words of Samuel Johnson, “Remarriage is a triumph of hope over experience.” Now statistically if you’re married you’re more likely to have kids and we all think that our kids will be especially talented. These by the way are my own kids, Livia and Leo, and they’re a very bad example of the optimism bias because they are especially talented. And I’m not alone. Out of every four people, three said that they were optimistic about the future of their own families. That’s 75 percent. But only 30 percent said that they thought that the next generation will be doing better than the current one. And that’s a really important point because we’re optimistic about ourselves, we’re optimistic about our families, we’re optimistic about our kids. But we’re not so optimistic about the guy sitting next to us. And we’re somewhat pessimistic about the future of our country and the ability of our leaders. And we call this private optimism versus public despair.

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