Are people more pessimistic or optimistic? As we watch the nightly news and follow political commentary one might immediately say we're a pessimistic bunch. But science says differently. Human brains are built to tilt toward the positive according to a stellar report by Tali Sharot called The Optimism Bias.
We imagine what could be. Apparently inside our brains our prefrontal cortex and the amygdala work together to keep us looking forward. It's a proactive survival mechanism. Because we are a species that is consciously aware of our pending mortality it is optimism that keeps us balanced. It's what motivated us to move out of caves in the first place.
From the article:
"Optimism starts with what may be the most extraordinary of human talents: mental time travel, the ability to move back and forth through time and space in one's mind. Our capacity to envision a different time and place is in fact critical to our survival."
Collectively we can be pessimistic, but when it comes to ourselves, we are mostly optimistic. For example, a recent survey found that while 70% of respondents thought families in general were less successful than in their parents' day, 76% of respondents were optimistic about the future of their own family.
We are hard-wired to think about what could be. In marketing let's not over think stuff: put the optimistic emotion of the product out there. People want that.
The next thing about optimism is that it's largely constructed out of experiences. The more experiences we have in our lives the more we learn. And the more we learn, interestingly, the more optimistic science says we tend to become. This is because prior experience allows us to find the silver lining in the clouds since we've been there before.
Different experiences also allow us to put things in the proper perspective. For instance, right before I read the Optimism Bias I was scanning an article about Oscar winning actress, Marion Cotillard, who was asked if she prefers the small films or big Hollywood productions...
MC: "Oh, I love both. I have the possibility to travel into so many universes, and that is what really makes the job marvelous for me. I wouldn't say I prefer one or the other. It's the richness (of both) that makes me think I will always have sparkles in my eyes and in my heart."
The value is in the balance and being well-rounded.
And if we're going to be well-rounded from experiences then that's extra good for organizations. In Change By Design, IDEO's Tim Brown talks about the importance of T-Shaped people in an organization. T-Shaped people are those who vertically specialize in something (the vertical part of the "T") but because they push themselves outside their core competency they also have the ability to collaborate across disciplines (the horizontal part of the "T").
So it's important to seek experiences in ourselves and others... it makes for more optimistic and collaborative groups.
The science of optimism is fascinating. Read the full article here.