People who are overly optimistic in the face of contrary evidence may have “faulty” function of their frontal lobes, according to new research.
Researchers at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging at University College London (UCL) 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.”
“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,” says researcher Dr. Tali Sharot. “But it can also mean that we are less likely to take precautionary action, such as practicing safe sex or saving for retirement. So why don’t we learn from cautionary information?”
The researchers studied 19 volunteers, presenting them with 80 negative life events like disease or having a car stolen. While magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) measured brain activity, they were asked to estimate the probability of that these events would happen to them.
After learning the average probability of these events happening, participants were asked to make new estimates. The volunteers did change their original estimates — but only if the information was better than they expected.
All the study participants showed increased frontal lobe activity when the news was good, processing the information that allowed them to alter their views. But when the news was worse than expected, there was less frontal lobe activity — a disregard of the contrary evidence, especially among the most optimistic subjects (according to a personality questionnaire).
“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,” said Dr. Sharot in a press release. “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.”
Dr. John Williams, Head of Neuroscience and Mental Health at the Wellcome Trust, had this to say: “Being optimistic must clearly have some benefits, but is it always helpful and why do some people have a less rosy outlook on life? Understanding how some people always manage to remain optimistic could provide useful insights into happens when our brains do not function properly.”
The study was published in Nature Neuroscience. Reference: Wellcome Trust. “Blame ‘faulty’ frontal lobe function for undying optimism in face of reality.” ScienceDaily, 10 Oct. 2011. Web. 13 Oct. 2011.
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Ann Pietrangelo is the author of “No More Secs! Living, Laughing & Loving Despite Multiple Sclerosis.” She is a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors and a regular contributor to Care2 Healthy & Green Living and Care2 Causes. Follow on Twitter @AnnPietrangelo