The Optimism Bias

Paperback | June 5, 2012

byTali Sharot

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From a leading neuroscience researcher, an exploration of the neural basis of optimism, and how the brain simulates the future. How does the brain generate hope? How does it trick us into moving forward? What happens when it fails? How do the brains of optimists differ from those of pessimists? Psychologists have long been aware that most people tend to entertain an irrationally positive outlook on their lives. Optimism may be so crucial to our existence that it is hard-wired into our brains. With the emergence of MRI brain imaging, we are beginning to understand the neural mechanisms and to understand the biological basis of optimism, and how our optimistic illusions affect our financial, professional and emotional decisions.


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From a leading neuroscience researcher, an exploration of the neural basis of optimism, and how the brain simulates the future. How does the brain generate hope? How does it trick us into moving forward? What happens when it fails? How do the brains of optimists differ from those of pessimists? Psychologists have long been aware that m...

TALI SHAROT has a PhD in psychology and neuroscience from NYU, and is currently a research fellow at Wellcome Trust Center for Neuroimaging at University College London and a British Academy PDF. Her research on optimism, memory and emotion has been featured in Newsweek, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, TIME magazine, the Sunday ...

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Format:PaperbackDimensions:272 pages, 7.94 × 5.08 × 0.75 inPublished:June 5, 2012Publisher:Knopf CanadaLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0307398196

ISBN - 13:9780307398192

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January 3, 2004, Sharm el- Sheikh. One hundred and forty- eight passengers and crew board Flash Airlines Flight 604 bound for Paris via Cairo. The Boeing 737-300 takes off at exactly 4:44 a.m. Two minutes later, it disappears from the radar. Sharm el- Sheikh is located on the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula. It is a tourist destination because of its year- round warm weather, beautiful beaches, and marvelous snorkeling and diving. The majority of passengers on Flight 604 are French tourists escaping the European winter to spend their Christmas vacation near the Red Sea. Entire families are on board Flight 604, on their way back home. The crew is largely Egyptian. The pilot, Khadr Abdullah, is a decorated war hero, because of his performance flying the MiG- 21 in the Egyptian air force during the Yom Kippur War. He has 7,444 flying hours under his belt, although only 474 of those are on the Boeing 737 he is piloting on this day. According to its designated route, the aircraft should have ascended for a short while after takeoff and then turned left, heading toward Cairo. Instead, less than a minute into the flight, the plane turns right and quickly assumes a dangerous angle. Flying completely on its side, the jet begins spiraling downward toward the Red Sea. Just before impact, the pilot appears to gain control over the now upside- down plane, but it is too late.3 Flight 604 crashes into the water moments after takeoff. There are no survivors. At first, the authorities suspect a bomb had been planted on the plane by terrorists. This hypothesis arises because no distress signal was sent from the aircraft. However, when the sun comes up and pieces of the jet are discovered, it becomes apparent this theory is wrong. The pieces of the plane are detected close together, and there are not many of them. This suggests that when the plane hit the water, it was intact, rather than having exploded in midair, which would have resulted in many fragments scattering across the sea. What, then, caused Flight 604 to drop violently from the sky? For the mystery to be solved, it is essential that the plane’s black box be found. The area of the sea where the plane crashed is one thousand meters deep, which makes it difficult to detect the signals emitted from the box. Furthermore, the black box’s battery will last for only thirty days; after that, the probability of finding it will be, realistically, nil. Egyptian, French, and U.S. search teams participate in the effort. Luckily, two weeks into the search, the black box is detected by a French ship. The information from both the data recorder and the voice cockpit log contain clues that guide the investigators in a number of different directions. No less than fifty different scenarios are identified, then ruled out one by one, on the basis of the available data. No evidence of any airplane- related malfunction or failure can be found. The investigators are left with a handful of scenarios, which they then try out in a plane simulator. After examining the remaining scenarios thoroughly, all but one are deemed inconsistent with the data at hand. The U.S. research team concludes that “the only scenario identified by the investigative team that explained the accident sequence of events, and was supported by the available evidence, was a scenario indicating that the captain experienced spatial disorientation.” During spatial disorientation, also known as vertigo, a pilot is unable to detect the position of the aircraft relative to the ground. This usually happens when no visual cues are available, such as when the plane is flying in a dense cloud or in pitch- darkness over the ocean. The pilot may be convinced that he is flying straight when, in fact, the plane is in a banked turn, or when coming out of a level turn, he may feel he is diving. Trying to correct the (false) position of the aircraft only makes matters worse. During a rapid deceleration, a pilot sometimes feels the plane is facing downward. To rectify this illusion, the pilot may then pull up the nose of the plane, which often leads the aircraft to fall into a catastrophic spin known, for obvious reasons, as the “graveyard spin.” The graveyard spin is what seems to have happened to the Piper plane piloted by John F. Kennedy, Jr. It crashed into the Atlantic Ocean on July 16, 1999, after Kennedy suffered spatial disorientation while flying at night in bad weather en route to Martha’s Vineyard. How can a pilot be convinced that he is flying up when he is actually heading down? Or that he is moving straight ahead when he is, in fact, in a dangerous bank? The human brain’s navigational system has evolved to detect our movement on earth, not in the sky. It calculates our position by comparing signals from the inner ear (which has tubes of liquid that shift when we move) to the fixed sensation of gravity that points down to the center of the earth. This system works extremely well when we are on the ground, as it was developed to function in this context (our ancestors did not spend much of their time airborne). However, in a speeding plane in midair, the system gets confused. Our brain interprets irregular signals, such as angular accelerations or centrifugal force, as the normal force of gravity. As a result, it miscalculates our position in relation to the earth. The liquid in the inner ear does not quite catch up with the fast rate of the plane’s directional change, causing false signals to be transmitted to the brain. When our eyes cannot confirm directional change, either, because visual cues are lacking, the change in position can go undetected. The result is that the plane can be flying on its side, while the pilot is utterly convinced it is parallel to the ground; he feels as if he were relaxing on his couch at home. Now, here is the problem: Throughout life, we have learned to rely on our brain’s navigational system to give us the correct position of our body relative to the ground. We seldom suspect it is giving us misinformation, and thus we do not normally second- guess our sense of position. At this very moment, while reading this book, you know for sure that the sky is above you and the ground is beneath. You are probably right. Even in the dead of night, with no visual cues, you can still tell with certainty which way is up. So the first thing a pilot must learn is that although he may feel 100 percent certain that his plane is going in a specific direction, this may be an illusion. This is not an easy concept to grasp. An illusion is an illusion because we perceive it at face value— as reality. “The most difficult adjustment that you must make as you acquire flying skill is a willingness to believe that, under certain conditions, your senses can be wrong,” says one student pilot training guide. The good news is that there is a solution for a pilot’s vertigo; it is the plane’s navigational system. This is why, thankfully, most planes do not end up in the ocean, although almost every pilot has had a brush with vertigo at least once in his career. If a pilot is familiar with the plane’s navigational system and knows he must rely on it even when it communicates information that contradicts that conveyed by his brain, he will avoid tragedy. The problem in the case of John F. Kennedy, Jr., was that he was not certified in instrument flight rules (IFR), only in visual flight rules (VFR). He was not trained to fl y in conditions that did not allow for the use of visual cues— conditions in which one must rely on instruments alone to navigate, such as that dark, stormy night his plane crashed. Khadr Abdullah, the experienced pilot on the Flash jet, was certified in both IFR and VFR. However, on that fatal day, his brain seemed to trick him into believing he was flying level as he guided the plane into a dangerous right overbank nose- down. How could this happen to an experienced pilot? The U.S. investigative team suggests the following scenario: Shortly after takeoff, the plane was over the Red Sea at night; thus, no visual cues (such as ground lights) were available to indicate ground or sea level. Second, the plane’s change in spatial position was so gradual that it could not be picked up accurately by the crew’s vestibular systems. In fact, once the angle had greatly increased, the pilot may have perceived that the plane was turning slightly left rather than dangerously right. This scenario is supported by the recordings from the cockpit voice tape. On the tape, the first officer can be heard informing the pilot that the plane is turning right. In a surprised tone, the pilot is then heard responding, “Right? How right? ” indicating that he has detected a mismatch between the information provided by the first officer and his own perception. Because of the lack of visual cues and the gradual shift in position, the only way the pilot could have accurately perceived the relative location of the plane to the ground was by constantly monitoring the plane’s navigational system. There is evidence, however, that the flight instruments were not being monitored constantly. At the time the plane was entering a right bank, it was allowed to travel at thirty- five knots below the required airspeed and was climbing over the standard pitch. It appears the pilot did not detect these changes because his attention was focused on engaging and disengaging the autopilot. Without monitoring the plane’s navigational system, the pilot had only his brain’s navigational system to rely on, and that was receiving misinformation from his inner ear and no information from his eyes— resulting in disaster.From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

"Her fascinating book offers compelling evidence for the neural basis of optimism and what it all means. . . . The Optimism Bias provides startling new insight into the workings of the brain."—Scientific American Book Club"In this lively, conversational book, the author puts on firm footing what many of us have sensed all along—that we are, by and large, a pretty optimistic bunch. . . . Sharot is a friendly writer—her book brims with anecdotes and scientific studies that attest to optimism's gentling hand—though no empty smiley face. . . . A well-told, heartening report from neuroscience's front lines."—Kirkus Reviews“Entertaining and readable, and the subject matter is fascinating. . . . The Optimism Bias provides scientific confirmation of a long-standing hunch about human behaviour.” —Winnipeg Free Press “Fascinating. . . . Even if you’re a dedicated cynic, you might be surprised to learn that your brain is wearing rose-colored glasses, whether you like it or not.” —NPR