Hoping Against Hope: It’s a People Thing

By Robert M. Sapolsky
Los Angeles Times.

The defining feature of human brains is the size and complexity of the cortex, which provides the underpinnings of rationality for our actions.

But just because we have more developed cortexes doesn’t mean we are always rational decision-makers.

We humans constantly find ourselves loving the wrong person, buying things we don’t have the money for and believing that fad diets consisting of nothing but sundaes will work.

To be human is to hope against hope.

When it comes to decision-making and risk assessment, we tend to think in an asymmetrical manner that feeds an optimistic outlook and denies discouragement.

This has been shown in recent work by Christina Moutsiana and colleagues at University College London and published in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

In their study, the researchers asked test subjects to estimate the likelihood of something desirable happening to them. “There’s a 10 percent chance,” a subject might answer. If the researchers then told the subject that the odds were actually higher, say that there was actually a 20 percent chance of the desirable outcome, the subject was usually quick to adjust his own chances upward to 20 percent too.

So far, he’s behaving rationally: The subject has rationally updated his estimate based on feedback.

But if, after the subject gave his initial answer of 10 percent, the researcher provided bad news, explaining that actually the odds were more like 5 percent, the test subject was less likely to adjust his original estimate, apparently believing that somehow his own chances were better than average.

Humans believe in luck: in their good-luck charms, their lucky numbers, their lucky underwear, even.

We resist updating assessments when the feedback is bad but are eager and adept at making upward adjustments when the feedback is good.

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