The Optimism BiasUnlike my fellow UX consultant Tom Evans here at Box UK, I don’t have any formal education in psychology. While Tom benefits from a degree in Applied Psychology, my understanding of this particular facet of User Experience Design has come from reading UX books that focus on the psychological aspects (such as the excellent, succinct, “Neuro web design” by Susan Weinschenk).
What is the ‘Optimism Bias’?The author herself notes that did she not initially intend to write a sunny-side-up, happy-go-lucky book about our eternal optimism. When originally investigating people’s memories of tragic events (specifically 9/11), she began to see that the recollections of past events, while vivid, were not accurate (“students were no better at recalling September 11, 2001, than they were at recalling September 10, 2001”). This discovery suggested that the neural system responsible for memory may actually have developed for something more important than recalling past events – imagining future events.
The book’s styleAs soon as I got the book I jumped in and devoured it pretty quickly over a few sessions. The tone throughout is ‘plain-English’ enough for somebody such as myself without a scientific background, ensuring the complexities of the brain are revealed in an accessible way (so much so that the book impressively featured on the front of Time magazine). With a Ph.D. in Psychology and Neuroscience, and from her background as a research fellow at the Wellcome Trust’s Centre for Neuroimaging, all Tali’s theories get rigorously tested and analysed.
The book’s findingsSometimes the book underscored psychological concepts I’d heard of before (ie; our innate “superiority bias” or “introspection illusion”) with empirical evidence, while at other points it introduced me to new ideas, such as the notion “the hippocampus evolved not to form and retrieve memories, as previously thought, but to simulate the future.”
- “The consistent conclusion across studies is that children do not necessarily bring us joy” as “Happiness is not necessarily the most significant factor for the continuation of humankind. Passing on our genes, on the other hand, is.”
- “Higher income may indeed influence reflected satisfaction with life without significantly enhancing our experienced happiness”
- “We tend to view the past as a concentrated time line of emotionally exciting events”
- “We do not need to consciously remember that we made a choice in order for that choice to change our preferences”
- The brain tracks errors in our predictive capabilities “only when the new information is positive”
What does this mean for somebody that helps design User Interfaces?As this book isn’t specifically written for designers, developers etc., you have to draw your own conclusions from the empirical evidence put forward. For instance, one study manipulated volunteers’ expectations by altering the dopamine functions in their brain using naturally occurring amino acids. The results of this experiment led Tali to conclude:
Should you read this book?Yes, without a doubt. For a little over £5 for the Kindle version it’s a bargain. As a designer there are some great insights, but more importantly, as a human it’s a real eye opener on one’s own psyche and on those around you. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
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