Happy stumbling

New research by a team at University College in London adds to a growing field of investigation demonstrating important life-limiting Cognitive Biases in humans. This general field holds that since our brains were evolved primarily for survival and reproduction in nature, and in any case not as perfect perceiving and thinking instruments, they should be subject to various limitations – potentially leading to undesirable and unconscious quirks in our natural functioning. Already, this idea has been well-validated, underscoring that human wisdom and optimality have always required and will continue to require considerable personal and collective effort. Put another way, the natural flow of our minds and groups can be expected to lead us along a stumbling track.

In the new experiment, a small cohort of people were assessed for the characteristic of optimism and then asked to assess various risks while in a brain scanner. The researchers found three things, all consistent with related prior research: 1) more optimistic people were more likely to initially underestimate known objective risks, 2) these people were less able to assimilate objective information that contradicted their overly positive beliefs, 3) this pattern of processing bias (favoring rejection of negative information) was well-correlated with reduced frontal lobe processing in the more optimistic people. The researchers found, essentially, that our brains can naturally lead us to happy but incorrect judgments.

Since the vast majority of us are fairly to highly optimistic, the new research is important and adds to an increasing body of evidence suggesting significant and widespread distortions in the way we operate (even as an optimistic bias has been shown to provide compensating health benefits and added resilience against less than optimal choices). Key human biases include not only the systematic underestimation of risks and the minimization of contradictory facts (self-deception and dogmatism), but also 1) under-appreciation of the future and poor consideration of the consequences of our actions (presentism and impulsiveness), 2) more negative feelings toward people who are less similar to us (tribalism and chauvinism), 3) relativistic and self-favoring moral standards (selfism and clanism), and 4) vulnerability to manipulation by supernormal influences (primalism). Each of these innate biases may have been less of an issue in our original setting in small hunter-gathered bands on the plains of Africa, but today can greatly hamper individual and collective perception, thinking, choice, and quality of life in modern society.

Before your next decision, take a moment to review the new research at Brain Rejects Negative Thoughts. You can also learn more about human cognitive biases within us all (yes, you too) at Human Biases and explore three thought-provoking articles in the HumanaNatura article library that discuss aspects of this important area of health and quality of life science: The Persistence of IdeasEscape From Supernormal Reality, and Understanding Personal Empowerment.

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