Optimistically unrealistic!

A reflection of our unconscious minds – and the potential perils ahead.

Last Monday, March 12th, the BBC aired a programme under their excellent Horizon science series.  This programme was entitled, Out of Control?  Here’s how the programme was introduced,

We all like to think we are in control of our lives – of what we feel and what we think. But scientists are now discovering this is often simply an illusion.

Surprising experiments are revealing that what you think you do and what you actually do can be very different. Your unconscious mind is often calling the shots, influencing the decisions you make, from what you eat to who you fall in love with. If you think you are really in control of your life, you may have to think again.

The whole 60 minute programme was fascinating right from the start when Professor Nobre introduced the secret world of our unconscious mind.  Professor Anna Nobre heads The Brain & Cognition Laboratory, a cognitive neuroscience research group at the Department of Experimental Psychology in the University of Oxford.

For starters, how much of your mind do you think is your conscious mind as opposed to your unconscious mind?  Watch this clip and be amazed!

“Are you in control of your unconscious, or is it in control of you?”

So let me link how our mind works to something more relevant today than possibly any other aspect of life.

I’m thinking of the fundamental question that bothers me and, perhaps millions of others.  That question being: “Why, with the overwhelming scientific evidence that man is critically threatening the planet’s biosphere upon which we all depend, is there not an equally overwhelming global commitment for change to a sustainable way of life?

Take, for example, this compelling story.

Last Saturday the BBC News website published a report by Richard Black, the BBC’s Environment correspondent, that opened thus,

An eminent UK engineer is suggesting building cloud-whitening towers in the Faroe Islands as a “technical fix” for warming across the Arctic.

Scientists told UK MPs this week that the possibility of a major methane release triggered by melting Arctic ice constitutes a “planetary emergency“. [my emboldening]

The Arctic could be sea-ice free each September within a few years.

and later goes into this detail (do please read it all, it’s only a few minutes of quiet reading),

On melting ice

The area of Arctic Ocean covered by ice each summer has declined significantly over the last few decades as air and sea temperatures have risen.

For each of the last four years, the September minimum has seen about two-thirds of the average cover for the years 1979-2000, which is used a baseline. The extent covered at other times of the year has also been shrinking.

What more concerns some scientists is the falling volume of ice.

Analysis from the University of Washington, in Seattle, using ice thickness data from submarines and satellites, suggests that Septembers could be ice-free within just a few years.

Data for September suggests the Arctic Ocean could be free of sea ice in a few years

“In 2007, the water [off northern Siberia] warmed up to about 5C (41F) in summer, and this extends down to the sea bed, melting the offshore permafrost,” said Peter Wadhams, professor of ocean physics at Cambridge University.

Among the issues this raises is whether the ice-free conditions will quicken release of methane currently trapped in the sea bed, especially in the shallow waters along the northern coast of Siberia, Canada and Alaska.

Methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, though it does not last as long in the atmosphere.

Several teams of scientists trying to measure how much methane is actually being released have reported seeing vast bubbles coming up through the water – although analysing how much this matters is complicated by the absence of similar measurements from previous decades.

Nevertheless, Prof Wadhams told MPs, the release could be expected to get stronger over time.  “With ‘business-as-usual’ greenhouse gas emissions, we might have warming of 9-10C in the Arctic.  That will cement in place the ice-free nature of the Arctic Ocean – it will release methane from offshore, and a lot of the methane on land as well.”

This would – in turn – exacerbate warming, across the Arctic and the rest of the world.

Abrupt methane releases from frozen regions may have played a major role in two events, 55 and 251 million years ago, that extinguished much of the life then on Earth.

Meteorologist Lord (Julian) Hunt, who chaired the meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Climate Change, clarified that an abrupt methane release from the current warming was not inevitable, describing that as “an issue for scientific debate”.

But he also said that some in the scientific community had been reluctant to discuss the possibility.

“There is quite a lot of suppression and non-discussion of issues that are difficult, and one of those is in fact methane,” he said, recalling a reluctance on the part of at least one senior scientists involved in the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment to discuss the impact that a methane release might have.

Reams of other factual evidence shows that mankind may have only a few years left to stop the planet going into a runaway condition that would then extinguish much of the life on Earth!

So what’s stopping us?

Dr. Sharot

Well back to that Horizon programme.  In the programme, Dr. Tali Sharot of University College London explains how we are all optimists despite the risks.  I.e. our unconscious mind deliberately prevents negative information from affecting our conscious mind, our conscious judgment.

In an experiment, an individual is asked to guess the likelihood of a whole range of outcomes, 80 in all.  Ergo, you see a gentleman guessing the likelihood of cancer as 18%, of a bone fracture as 10%, of Alzheimer’s as 2%, and so on.

In some cases he guessed a pessimistic probability, in others an optimistic probability.  After each guess he was shown the correct probability.  E.g. cancer 30% vs his estimate of 18%, for a bone fracture 34% vs his guess of 10%, and the risk in reality of Alzheimer’s is 10% versus his instinct of just 2%.   I’ve just quoted his optimistic guesses, in many questions his guess was a pessimistic view, i.e. he guessed a higher likelihood than the statistical reality.

Then he was asked all 80 questions again, having seen the accurate probability compared to his intuitive guess.

So here’s the fascinating outcome.

Where his instinct was a negative guess versus the statistical probability then he adjusted his mind and was able to quote a more accurate figure the second time around.  But where the reality was more pessimistic than his first guess, then that adjusted knowledge wasn’t retained.  In other words, our beliefs only change when we can adjust to a more positive view of the future.

I just hope I have made that clear.  Readers may like to view an article written by Dr. Sharot published in TIME Magazine in May, 2011, called The Optimism Bias or read the introduction to a lecture given in Seattle in June, 2011;  “A sunny outlook doesn’t just make you a more pleasant companion: Tali Sharot argues that optimism is a tool for survival and happiness that gets us through hard times—even an economic recession. Sharot, author of The Optimism Bias, uncovers myths about optimism, illuminates the ways it can affect our lives, examines why optimism is necessary for us to function, and illustrates how the human brain is extremely adept at turning lead into gold.

A summary of a publication, Sharot, T. (2011). The optimism bias. Curr Biol 21(23), R941-R945, reads,

The ability to anticipate is a hallmark of cognition. Inferences about what will occur in the future are critical to decision making, enabling us to prepare our actions so as to avoid harm and gain reward. Given the importance of these future projections, one might expect the brain to possess accurate, unbiased foresight. Humans, however, exhibit a pervasive and surprising bias: when it comes to predicting what will happen to us tomorrow, next week, or fifty years from now, we overestimate the likelihood of positive events, and underestimate the likelihood of negative events. For example, we underrate our chances of getting divorced, being in a car accident, or suffering from cancer. We also expect to live longer than objective measures would warrant, overestimate our success in the job market, and believe that our children will be especially talented. This phenomenon is known as the optimism bias, and it is one of the most consistent, prevalent, and robust biases documented in psychology and behavioral economics.

More fascinating information can be found at the Affective Brain Lab.

So here’s the crunch!

Our bias towards an optimistic future is a “tool for survival and happiness that gets us through hard times.”  But if that ancient bias is preventing mankind from recognising just how close we may be to some form of ‘tipping point’ then this tool for survival may be our undoing.

But if on the other hand, we now unite in changing our ways, first by community then by town then by country our future is incredibly optimistic.

 “A single candle may light a thousand others and they in turn many thousands more” – Buddha

8 thoughts on “Optimistically unrealistic!

  1. Very neatly inter-woven with Richard Black’s piece on the BBC website, and good evidence of individual research. Go to the top of the class. 🙂

    Seriously though, as I said to you on the telephone, this was an excellent programme; and you are absolutely right to focus on the optimistic bias, which appears to be another way of explaining what Leon Festinger called cognitive dissonance, i.e. the way in which we avoid exposure to – and/or discount – information that contradicts our already-established (and/or preferred) understanding of reality.

    On the proverbial front, all I can offer you is: Traditional Chinese proverb say, “Even longest journey begin with small step…”


    1. Thanks Martin.

      The thing that comes out of that programme, which I have previously alluded to on LfD, is the very real power of hope. Ergo, there is always a need for embracing the facts about a crisis but change comes about so much more easily if a better future is presented as the reason for that change. Paul


  2. I watched this Paul and it confirms much .. I read somewhere once upon a time that the Indigenous Natives didnt see Columbus and his ships landing, because they didn’t see the ships within their vision .. Because it was ‘Outside’ what they had ever seen before. After watching this you can see how that would be.. Because of how the Mind registers only that which we are used too in the Conscious vision Ie programming of reality.. The Unsconscious part though which I suppose is how I used that part of my own brain when connecting to that ‘Other realm’ is very real.. So as our mind and consciousness expands so too does our perception of reality and who knows what we may discover is living along side us! 🙂 😉 Excellent post


    1. Thank you Sue. Yes, it was one of the most interesting Horizon programmes for a very long time. And that’s saying something for a science programme that has been fabulous for many years. Paul


  3. Those of you that did watch the Horizon programme will recall that at one point, fairly early on if I remember, they demonstrated how difficult it is to focus on more than 2.5 simultaneous events.

    Well this link is an extension of our lack of capacity to see ‘widely’. http://www.msf-usa.org/motion.html

    It’s about motion induced blindness and is introduced thus,

    Below you see a rotating array of blue crosses and 3 yellow dots. Now fixate on the centre (watch the flashing green spot). Note that the yellow spots disappear once in a while: singly, in pairs or all three simultaneously. In reality, the 3 yellow spots are continuously present, honest!

    Try it!


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