Tali Sharot: Overcoming The Optimism Bias

Are humans wired to deal with the kinds of existential threats facing society today?

This is not just an intellectually-interesting metaphysical question. The answer may well determine whether our species makes it to the next century or not.

As PeakProsperity.com readers know well, humans’ relentless pursuit of ‘ever more’ growth is finally slamming into the limits of a finite planet.

The energy fuels and natural resources necessary to continue to expand the global economy are becoming more scarce and more expensive to extract. And yet the global population continues to grow, now expected to hit 9.7 billion (or higher) by 2050.

Evolutionarily wired for immediate, visible threats (like a snarling lion ready to pounce), can we realistically expect our species to proactively pull together to deal with long-term, faceless emergencies like overindebtedness, Peak Oil, climate change, and overpopulation?

And if it’s possible we can, how can we help others wake up to these threats? How can we break through their existing belief system that “everything is fine”?

In this week’s podcast, Chris Martenson poses these important questions to Dr. Tali Sharot, professor of cognitive neuroscience in the Department of Experimental Psychology at University College London. Dr. Sharot is known for her research on the neural basis of emotion, decision making, and optimism. Her 2012 Ted Talk on the optimism bias received over 2.3 million views.

Optimism is good for many reasons. But it can be quite negative, too, if you're underestimating risk.

If we underestimate risk, then we’re less likely to take precautionary actions. So if you think, well, I am going to be so healthy that you don’t even go to medical screenings or you don’t buy insurance when you actually should, right, that’s a problem. You don’t prepare for the worst case scenario, that’s a problem.

We have an avoid/approach instinct where we approach the good things, whether it’s chocolate cake or money or love. We move forward, we approach. If you see a photo with a smiling person you approach.

When we see the bad stuff, we try to go back. We avoid it, whether it’s poison or someone frowning or any kind of danger – we just stay away.

So in order to get to action on big threats, we need to refrain the problem not as: we’re going into extinction, we’re going into a catastrophe, we need to do something now to avoid it. But more like: what can we do to make our planet as good as it’s ever been?

What can we do to protect it and make it a place that is flourishing?

We need to insert a positive message rather than a negative in order for people to want to approach and take action and to be involved. Otherwise people say ‘I don’t want to think about this bad stuff because it’s not something nice to think about’.

And I think that’s something that hasn’t been done so much. The focus has mostly been on trying to scare and trying to cause fear, rather than trying to enhance the sense that we can create something that’s great for future generations.

Click the play button below to listen to Chris’ interview with Tali Sharot (50m:21s).

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://peakprosperity.com/tali-sharot-overcoming-the-optimism-bias/

She has shown that giving people facts about manmade global heating merely results in them becoming more polarized.

You prepare, personally, for the inevitable consequences of collective society’s failure to confront any of those problems. If enough individual’s like you prepare, then guess what you’ve got? A collective response to the problem.
That’s all you can do. Forget about trying to convince everybody about what they should do about the problems that YOU think are foremost on the horizon. The fact is, you really don’t know what’s going to happen and you really don’t know what to do about any of it even if you did. You have IDEAS, OPINIONS, and THEORIES.
Most importantly you have the freedom to pursue your ideas, opinions, and theories. You can make your own life as resilient as possible and maybe other’s will be inspired by your example and follow suite.

Except some encode good news as bad news! Politics for example. Or anti-social Cluster B.



So a Black Swan is an event that is Not part of our believe system and hence ignored and not seen. Only once the triggers events that we 'understand are effected or changed do we recognize the new data.
Information overload is a prerequisite to pattern recognition.

At the end, what our guest says ties in with what a teacher of mine says is one of the central mechanisms of the universe: what we focus on is what we end up creating more of in our lives.
So: war on poverty? Creates more poverty. War on terror? More terror. War on drugs? More drug use.
Just try telling a teenager not to do something.
Now we have a neuroscientist telling us that people are more receptive to messages that focus on creation. Perhaps people are hard-wired by evolution to take advantage of this alleged woo-woo universal mechanism.
And perhaps the optimism bias ties in with that too.
So maybe we should try focusing on what we want more of, and see what happens. After all, its neuroscience! :slight_smile:

Please. While I’m sure “optimism bias” is a fascinating subject, it’s clear that our situation is due to a “greed bias.” The legal system allows people to profit from what has long been known to be damaging our planet’s capability to support human civilization.
The situation in which humanity finds itself with respect to ecosystem collapse has identical explanations to the situation in which smokers found themselves with respect to smoking causing cancer. It is just that the problem is billions of times more massive.

I want to add a wrinkle to the relationship between optimism bias and climate change. To communicate about climate change in a way that accounts for the optimism bias, you need to simultaneously not sugar-coat the issue (I work for a large mainstream environmental NGO that consistently sugarcoats the issue) and talk about the benefits of what can be done. The catch, of course, is that one of the “what can be done" actions (for those in mature western industrialized economies) is simply to change society so that we live on less (consumerism, energy, etc). While there is a good argument that theoretically these changes can be done in ways that will make our overly busy and stressed lives better, few will buy that argument.
To illustrate, there is a commonly encountered dynamic encountered when an old obsolescent dam is removed from a river for restoring the river’s ecology. Local communities tend to vociferously resist any proposed changes and want the dam to remain in place, despite communications about the benefits of the work. These communities typically lose these battles only because it is always way more expensive to rehabilitate/rebuild a dam than simply to tear it down.
So down comes the dam, and lo and behold, those that were formerly oppose tend to change their minds about the whole process - most come to see that the changes after removing the dam are beneficial from a whole number of perspectives (many old dams tend to have ugly, silted in, weedy backwater ponds). It is simply the resistance to change that is the big hurdle.
With climate change, on top of this we add in resistance to going against deeply inculcated narratives about the triumphant role of growth and progress in the trajectory of the now dominant industrialized culture. I can’t imagine any way to overcome these difficulties, even with communications that are well informed by an understanding of the role of optimism bias.
If you could wave a magic want and make well thought-out changes in society to sharply curtail carbon emissions in an equitable way, it may very well be that people would leave lives that are indeed in many ways improved over the lives we now have. Moreover, like dam removal, they may be able to see this in retrospect. But I can’t ever imagine society every managing to make that leap.