Reality Rejected

“Unrealistic optimism is a pervasive human trait that influences domains ranging from personal relationships to politics and finance,” wrote authors of a study published in the journal Nature Neuroscience.

Optimistic people: another reason we’re doomed. Make up 80% of the population. And, they live longer. Great.


19 thoughts on “Reality Rejected

  1. I would also say that your version of pessimism is also a rejection of reality. You expect the worst in all cases, yet the worst does not manifest in all cases.

    Pessimism is not the antidote to unrestrained optimism. It’s simply another disease.

  2. Optimism is also a trait we have naturally selected for. Why? Because it’s more successful. Optimism achieves better results.

    • Have “we” naturally selected for anything? Surely our genes have selected for optimism because it improves their chances of survival. The whole premise of the selfish gene theory is that we (along with a few higher order mammals) have evolved to the point where we are *capable* of reasoning beyond / transcending this instinct.

      However, individuals being capable of doing something doesn’t automatically mean that it becomes our default mode of behaviour. The set of circumstance in which the basic instincts can be overridden aren’t met everywhere: enlightened education, satisfactory diet, equitably economic and democratic systems. Even when those criteria are met, it doesn’t necessarily mean that long term thinking will triumph, just that they are possible.

      Anyway, there are basically three big issues that i struggle to remain positive about:

      1. population growth
      2. climate change / mass extinction
      3. global poverty / inequity

      My guess is that it is a prerequisite that we live in world where at least the first and last issues are being actively addressed, before we over come the selfishness of our genes.

      By most measures that i’m aware of, we still have issues:

      1. population still rising, and rising at an increasing rate
      2. emissions (of green house cases) still rising / six great extinction well underway, and rate of extinctions increasing
      3. gaps between haves / have nots increasing

      Long term population will level out. That seems inevitable. Being realistic about it, i’d say that if we’re lucky it’ll be choice that we make, but we’ve so far failed to make that choice.

      It feels like the tide is turning on emissions. Even if the point of inflection isn’t behind us yet, we’re running out of easy to find stuff to burn, and we do at least have a set of alternatives lined up.

      The ‘greed is good’ period that has lasted, and grown, from the 80s, feels more under attack, more questioned, challenged, than any time that i can remember. Perhaps we’ll see something new emerge in the next decade that returns us to a more equitable arrangement for everyone.

      That seems like a more realistic / balanced view than you give me credit for… you seem to be in a mood to provoke / insult, so i’m sorry if it’s too measured and reasonable a response.

      • “You seem to be in a mood to provoke.” He says, after starting with “Optimistic people: another reason we’re doomed.”

        I think the point about natural selection is that we’ve evolved cognitive biases because they are more successful strategies than pure realism. The counter to that would be that they were more successful in prehistoric settings, but some are now possibly detrimental in our current environment.

        Certainly we are changing our world far too rapidly for natural selection to eliminate the now negative biases in time. But I dispute the conclusion that optimism is necessarily one that needs to go.

        Some optimistic approaches to the problems you list may be successful. I would say we have to be optimistic about them, otherwise what’s the point? If failure is assumed certain then why try?

        Optimism in the face of the facts is successful (from my brief reading) precisely because it says “So what if the odds are against us, let’s try anyway .” Which is what we have to do.

        The problems are massive, and the numbers suggest that we’ve got considerable tragedies ahead regardless of whether we succeed or fail. But we have to optimistically assume that our best efforts will get us to the other side at least partially intact.

        • Optimism is a useful strategy in many circumstances. If it’s your only strategy you’re not as in touch with reality as might be prudent. That doesn’t seem particularly controversial.

          Looking back over the last 20 or 30 years i’d say that the best efforts of a small minority of enlightened individuals and organisations have not been enough to slow the pace of change in the wrong direction.

          It seems sensible to assume that the chances of their success increases somewhat as the impact of our inaction becomes evident to more people. Which is really saying, “in the short term we’re going to suffer terribly as a consequence of our extended inaction, force millions of species into extinction, destroy irreplaceable ecosystems that we don’t even understand, or some cases ever know about… but in the long term things are on the up and up!”

          Optimism is as much an inhibitor of change as pessimism: “Things always work out in the end, something will come along that’ll make this problem go away…” But having a realistic understanding of the situation that you face allows you to make rational decisions, with a chance of reasonable, positive long term outcomes.

          Thinking about these issues, trying to understand and get them in perspective, is a long way from ignoring them, either in the hope that they’ll go away, or despair that we’ll ever do anything.

          • I think so far as cognitive biases go, the current criminals are confirmation bias and belief bias. It seems to me that powerful capitalist interests with short term agendas, by way of powerful propaganda machines, are gaming those biases in the wider public to great effect.

            People are optimistic about the future and unmotivated to demand change because they’ve been intentionally manipulated to only seek and believe information that allows such an optimistic position.

            If we are doomed, it won’t be because a populace is optimistic against better judgement, it will be because they genuinely believe such do-nothing optimism is only a small reach from the truth.

            And the culprit there is growth-at-all-costs, amoral capitalism.

              • “At best it’s a control mechanism, re-inforcing questionable thinking.”

                You didn’t read the pdfs I linked, nor the article you just linked.

                • For my sins, didn’t read all 40 odd pages of one of them but did at least read the conclusion and skim the rest of it.

                  Comments were meant in the context of the discussion preceding. Not a blanket statement.

                  “Optimism is a useful strategy in many circumstances. If it’s your only strategy you’re not as in touch with reality as might be prudent. That doesn’t seem particularly controversial.”

                • Here’s an idea: maybe optimism is a good strategy when dealing with personal relationships, situations where the benefits of altruism can directly accrue locally. Conversely it’s not as good a strategy when it requires a broader, global, say, impact, and the benefits will be far more indirect / dispersed.

                  • If you were making a case against decision making from positions of ignorance, or against confirmation or belief bias, which in themselves create ignorant decision making, then I would support your case.

                    If optimistic strategies have been successful for humanity to date, both on individual and group levels, as appears to be the case, then the onus is on you to show what is fundamentally different about present day problems.

                    Note that the evidentially supported optimistic strategies are not ignorant strategies. Optimistic actors are presumed to have reasonable understanding of the facts. Many faulty decisions you would probably like to use to smear optimism are more likely ignorant decisions.

                    • “If optimistic strategies have been successful for humanity to date”

                      My point is that they haven’t been successful for humanity, they have been successful for our genes. That success is in the short-term, the propagation of the genes continues to the next iteration.

                      “Optimistic actors are presumed to have reasonable understanding of the facts.”

                      Fine line. A reasonable understanding of the fact, but choose to act as if the fact indicated a different situation. Reasonable? In so much as it has been shown that doing so increases the success of the genes, yes.

                      In the long term, you’d have a much stronger case if we hadn’t so badly soiled our ecosystem during our development…

  3. Humanity imploding would be bad for our genes.

    As much as we like to lament the focus on short term goals behind various decisions, we do not as a species operate solely on short term goals. We are not amoeba.

    Our genetic makeup has allowed us to (or lead us to) create civilisations more akin to those of ants, with specialisation, centralised leadership, and differing degrees of planning per specialisation.

    It’s entirely plausible that we are genetically predisposed, at least in some individuals, to think and plan long term, and to have some people in leadership specialisations who do so.

    The fact that we are both sitting here, intensely thinking and bickering over the short and long term future of humanity, and doing so presumably due to some innate volition, suggests that our genes have already found it to their benefit to encourage such things.

    It’s quite possible that our growth will outpace our currently evolved cognitive and organisational capacities. It’s quite possible that our collective abilities to achieve long term goals will prove insufficient. Maybe we’re heading for a hard fall. Maybe not.

Wise words...

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