The Optimism Bias

Unlike 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).

Having read an extract on the Guardian website from the recently published (January 2012) ‘The Optimism Bias’ by Tali Sharot, I was compelled to order the full book(Kindle version).

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.

While researching this theory (by recording brain activity in people when they thought about imagined future events), Sharot noticed that all participants insisted on thinking positively, no matter how trivial the subject matter. In order to uncover the neurobiological basis for this, she “set aside [the] original project and went on to try to identify the neural mechanisms that mediate our optimistic tendencies.”

As such, this book documents her attempt to uncover the reasons behind the ‘Optimism Bias’, which in the author’s words is; “the inclination to overestimate the likelihood of encountering positive events in the future and to underestimate the likelihood of experiencing negative events.”

The book’s style

As 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 findings

Sometimes 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.”

I was particularly fascinated by this concept of mental time travel into the future, and how this has led to our brain developing a positive bias. As Tali writes, when considering death: “A brain that could consciously voyage through time would be an evolutionary barrier unless it had an optimism bias.”

The book is choc-full of studies with participants; too many to go into in a short review, but suffice to say, in an effort to tease out the optimism bias in people, Tali unearths some really interesting concepts about the human psyche. Just a small sample of these for me included:

  • “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”

This is just a quick example of some of the nuggets of insight into our minds that made this book such a fascinating read.

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:

“After making a choice, the decision ultimately changes our estimated pleasure, enhancing the expected pleasure from the selected option”

So as a UI designer, how can I take this idea and weave it into a system? Perhaps I could design messaging into a site that tells a user “That looks like a great choice for you” once they’ve chosen and decided on a single option from multiple possibilities? As always, the context would dictate, but there are certainly enough ideas in the book to give a designer plenty of ideas to take into their next project.

(As an aside for Project Managers, the book also reinforces something we’ve always known; “There is a demonstrated, systematic, tendency for project appraisers to be overly optimistic.”)

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.