Optimism: Biases, delusion, solution

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Part 2 of 3 series

Humanity, with its collective wisdom and in harmony with the forces of living systems, is fighting an uphill battle against surprises of nature. In the face of the pandemic, the victory is derived from how humanity and the coronavirus could co-exist. In confronting the challenges of life and living, humanity holds on to faith and hope. Human beings benefit from optimism—a doctrine and a philosophical standpoint that this world is the best possible world. The conviction that the future is positive and that we will get through this pandemic experience is optimism.

The mathematics of optimism

Bayesian Statistics, named after mathematician Thomas Bayes, is a mathematical formula for determining conditional probability—the likelihood of an outcome occurring, which is based on previous outcome occurring. It combines prior information with evidence from information contained to gain statistical inference process. It provides people the tools to update their beliefs in the evidences of new data. Bayesian decision-making is based on the probability of a successful outcome. In Bayesian interpretation, the probability expresses a degree of belief in the event. In the Bayesian paradigm, degrees of belief in states of nature are specified—and the value is positive.

The Bayesian Brain Hypothesis argues that there is a deep hidden structure behind human behavior which roots trace back into the very nature of life itself. It states that our brain in a way predicts the future and enforces this desired future, which is a positive one.

The American Psychological Association (APA) Dictionary of Psychology defines optimism as hopefulness—the attitude that good things will happen and that people’s wishes or aims will ultimately be fulfilled. Webster puts it as an inclination to put the most favorable construction upon actions and events or to anticipate the best possible and positive outcome.

Optimism prevents us from lingering in the negative outcomes. Then, by lessons of life and living, humanity accesses the optimism bias—the tendency to overestimate the likelihood of experiencing positive events and underestimate the likelihood of experiencing negative events. The optimism bias instills feelings of control.

Optimism bias: Evolution towards the brighter side

Leading Cognitive Neuroscientist Tali Sharot asserts that optimism bias exists on the neural level in our brains and plays a major role in determining how we live our lives. Our brains may be hardwired to look on the bright side.

Optimism bias is one of the evolutionary adaptive functions of the human brain to protect itself from anxiety and threats. Optimism showed functional benefits to human evolution that it is passed on to offspring and taught across generations. Heifetz and Spiegel concluded that when a pessimist and an optimist are in conflict, the optimist drives the interaction. The optimistic bias towards the outcome results in the optimist’s more aggressive dominance in the conflict.

The positive outcome in the sight of the optimist may also gain more influence from the majority. And the optimists lead because they are able to draw a vision, an ideal state of the future that strengthens influence. The positive end-in-mind becomes a powerful motivating force used by leaders.

Optimism bias: Predicting the good

The human brain creates and updates beliefs about the world in the face of evidences presented to its sensory pathways. Our beliefs define what our senses perceive, what future we expect and what choices we make. The Bayesian Brain Theory and the Predictive Coding Theory propose that our brain continuously develops predictive models of its environment. Incoming sensory perceptions generate inferences and in turn used to filter perceptions and direct our actions.

When the human brain detects a difference between what it predicts and what it perceives in reality, it generates a prediction error and updates its predictive model. This is a continuous cyclical process of updating which improves its predictions of the world. And the cycles of inferences and updates create our mental world. The subjective realities eventually become the objective reality.

Studies show that belief-updating is optimistically biased because favorable information is more considered than unfavorable one, which tends to be neglected.

The optimism bias: The Covid-19 experience

IT was in January 2020 when a threat of a global pandemic was announced by renowned epidemiologists like Leung and Lipsitch. They announced that 40 to 70 percent of the world population could be infected. A survey data by Raude et al., in February 2020 reported that a large majority in Europe estimated their risk of catching the virus to be around 1 percent, and continued their usual social practices. And Europe became the global epicenter of the pandemic. A quantitative study prepared by the Philippine Survey Research Center, from April 7 to 12, showed that around 35 percent of Filipinos believed that the health crisis would last for one month, while 46 percent believed it would last for two to three months. The Philippines, at the time of this writing, ranks 20th among countries in terms of cases.

Optimism bias explains why the probability of getting infected with the virus and of subsequent infecting others as lower for themselves than for someone else. In a study conducted by the Global Web Index in March 16 to 20, the Filipino respondents thought that Covid-19 global outbreak will last for 6.2 months in the world, and thought that in the Philippines it will last only for 3.7 months.

What dampens the optimistic bias?

The amazing feedback mechanisms of the human brain reduces that unrealistic optimistic bias in the presence of an immediate threat in the environment. As evidences of the Covid-19 risk become more accurate, the belief-updating occurs and the unrealistic optimism biased is dampened.

This explains why while optimism was the initial response of the Filipinos, towards the latter part of the pandemic experience, the optimism bias of the Filipinos is shattered and realism sets in. The Social Weather Station Survey, in May 2020, indicated the historical record low Net Optimism (optimists less pessimists) at -18. The Consumer Expectations Survey in 2020 showed that the consumer confidence index in the Philippines turned pessimistic for the third quarter 2020, as the overall confidence index declined to a record low of -54.5. But the consumer confidence for the next 12 months across component indicators was more favorable compared with the first quarter of 2020, due to expectations that the pandemic will end. And the optimism envelops the Filipino spirit anew.

Public health policies must maintain a good level of evidence-based information and effective explanation to influence the population’s beliefs about the risks associated with the crisis.

It has been shown that a prolonged exposure to a threat increases feelings of familiarity, progressively reducing perceived risk. As a popular quotation says, courage is not absence of fear but the mastery of it. Such courage will endanger the consistent and relatively unbiased risk assessment, which is crucial for sustaining protective individual behavior. The belief of this generation and the optimism bias will be the bases of the footprints it will make and leave in this pandemic experience.

(To be concluded next week)

For feedback, please send e-mail to drcarlbalita@yahoo.com.


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