Myth: Optimists are less realistic

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This article by Dr Piotr Wozniak is part of SuperMemo Guru series on memory, learning, creativity, and problem solving.

Myth: Optimism is a flaw of the mind

Myth: Optimists are less realistic.

Fact: Optimists are more productive.

Many pessimists claim that optimists are optimistic because they have lost the connection with reality. Allegedly, the optimist does not understand the threats. This myth needs to be busted because if you believe it, it hurts both you and me.

Pessimism hurts you

If you look at a young dog or a child, you will usually notice a great deal of happy behaviors. This is the baseline of contentment for the brain. We are born happy. Contentment drives behaviors and has been welcome by the evolution with open arms. If you believe that a child or a dog are happy because they know little of the world, you deprive yourself of the awareness that high contentment is the norm. What makes people unhappy or pessimistic is the systematic injury to the reward system incurred as a result of the way we engineered our society. It is the limits on freedom and the hierarchy of value that keeps conditioning the mind in ways that favor low levels of happiness. Pessimism is particularly harmful in that it limits action, and action is necessary for trajectory correction. If you throw away the myth of unrealistic optimism, you will make your first step towards a better future. If you do not believe it is possible, you may never get there. See my: Simple formula for happiness

All humans distort reality while modelling it, however, optimists are driven to action that serves trajectory correction

Pessimism hurts me

My optimism often raises an eyebrow. "Future is bright" is one of signature endings to my texts. For example, see History of spaced repetition. If you dismiss optimism as lack of realism, you will never believe my prescriptions. Your pessimism undermines my credibility (in your eyes).

Happy baseline

All psychiatrists know that the interpretation of the exactly same fact will differ depending on the neurohormonal state of the brain. The same impersonal event can spell doom to one person, and cause great joy to another. Even more, the same event can be interpreted differently by the same person. Even one night of good sleep tends to change the interpretation for the better. Same facts, same implications, different feelings.

Valuation of facts depends on the state of the brain

Optimism vs. Realism

"Ignorance is bliss" is a typical excuse to explain the myth of an unrealistic optimist. It is as if a happy mindset could only be rooted in being unaware of the risks and dangers that surround individuals and mankind in general. The myth gets an extra boost from the actual link between creativity and mental illness derived from a fact that a powerful brain is a risk factor.

Hereby is my quick proof that optimism needs no ignorance:

I am aware that the second law of thermodynamics implies the universe will likely end, and that the probability of me being alive in 50 years is nearly zero. My opus vitae may turn out useless in a few decades. This does not stop me from having great fun while writing these words with rock-solid conviction of being right (see why I am always right)

You can be aware of the doom, and still enjoy your existence!

I should add that extra learning can actually boost optimism. Did you hear of the Big Crunch and/or the Big Rip? Which one is more likely? If you are not sure, you got a lovely material to work with for the rest of your life. On the way, you might discover Big Something Else. Or someone else will do it. There are glimmers of hope in all that doom. Dark Energy has only recently been affirmed. More surprises will be uncovered soon (yes, I am optimistic). What if you care about your own existence? You will find comfort in that one day we might transfer our minds to computers. There are only minor technical difficulties on the way that even a single individual might resolve had he been determined enough. I am not. This is not my field. I don't mind passing my work to others.

A pessimist will speak of the death sentence for the universe issued by physics. I say "let's try to figure out a way around the current status of physics?". I am not changing facts. Famous physicists David Deutsch is similarly optimistic. He is optimistic in life, and he is optimistic about physics. All our knowledge about the origins and the destiny of the universe is hazy enough to provide a lot of room for hope. With optimism, we only add fuel to further scientific explorations! Better die on the run that in the inaction of a dark cold death bed.

We cannot confuse a happy state of mind with the unrealistic optimism! In a happy mind, the facts do not change! What changes is the way we feel about them!

The confusion of optimism with lack of realism favors a sense of guilt to come with a happy mind! It may also be an excuse for staying pessimistic. In reality, a happy mind is the key to solving problems! This has biological roots. For efficient problem solving we need a voracious learn drive and a vibrant creativity. Those qualities come solely with happy neurohormones, and rich rewards.

If you want a man to run fast, scare him. If you want him to discover new laws, shelter him with love!

Optimistic model

If we take the same set of facts and provide optimistic valuations, the output from the knowledge valuation network will change. We may skew probabilities on the optimistic side. As generalization is based on eliminating contradictions and forgetting the detail, change in valuations may result in a change of modelling. Healthy confirmation bias will deepen the deviation from the neutral trajectory.

Even if the brain has access to the same information channels, it will make a different selection of knowledge in modelling reality. As a result, if you ask an optimist and a pessimist about the probability of reversing Brexit, you may get different answers even if you provided them with perfectly identical information. Which valuations are then more realistic? Should not brain forgo its enthusiasm when modeling reality?

The big clue comes from the difference in how we see the world with a well-refreshed morning brain, and how we see it in the evening when we experience cognitive fatigue due to network overload. It is the morning brain that seems optimistic for it can easily find solutions to problems it may face. The evening brain is pessimistic for it is powerless. Even worse, in clinical depression, the brain may refuse to undertake problem solving. It may lose interest in anything that an average man in the street finds pleasurable. In other words, it is the reward from learning, creativity, and problem solving that makes the key difference.

Continual learning and continual generalization will be determined by the current status quo of knowledge, and the arrival of new information. An optimistic brain will make a differently biased selection when building models. However, that never-ending current of problem solving may actually favor optimistic models for their veracity. If the modelling euphoria was drug-induced, we might question the reliability of the emerging models. However, if the reward comes from the creative process itself, the outcomes should be superior.

A happy mind will build an optimistic perception of reality. However, due to the source of the reward dependent on coherence and consistency, the optimistic bias may favor correctness of models. Good models increase the pleasure of learning, contribute to a happy mind, and trigger a positive feedback loop between the state of the brain and the progress of the computation. This is part of the genius evolutionary design: the human brain.

The bias introduced by the optimistic mind is more likely to err on the side of the truth

There are many sources of reward for the brain. A jogger might be more optimistic, this might bias her modeling towards optimistic predictions, but is jogging an engine for truth? Even though there is no link between leg muscle and logic, all forms of exercise are beneficial for neurogenesis, which is beneficial for working memory, which is beneficial for ad hoc modelling, and ultimately beneficial for the long-term image of abstract knowledge in memory.

Realistic optimism

The whole dilemma of the impact of knowledge on the level of optimism can be easily resolved by defining the term realistic optimism. This approach makes it possible to separate optimists who can stoically take on the challenges of life from those who have lost their grounding in reality.

To me, however, this division is as artificial as dividing short people into those who are smart and those who are dumb. Intelligence is based on abstract knowledge. Knowledge of an individual can be measured. Optimism can be seen as a neurohormonal characteristic of the brain. Knowledge and optimism are separate attributes that can be assessed independently. They are weakly correlated. The term realistic optimist is as useful as the term happy shortie in the wake of a finding that taller people are more happy. An optimist can simply be smart or dumb. It is the smarts that make for a realistic optimist.

Optimistic disposition may affect anyone, independent of their level of knowledge or intelligence

Happiness vs. intelligence

Research seems to find all sorts of correlations between intelligence and happiness. Those are positive and negative correlations. Meta-analyses seem to show the link is either positive (see: Smart people are happier) or weak (see: Correlates of avowed happiness). The actual relationship is complex. Intelligence has its benefits, but also has its costs. My interpretation is simple. If you take a simplistic measure of intelligence, e.g. an IQ tests, a nimble mind may turn out overwhelming, esp. when it takes on intractable topics such as the meaning of life. However, true intelligence is also a good weapon. As such it can be extremely useful in solving problems that make people unhappy. If you have any doubts, ask yourself a question: Would you rather be dumb?

Intelligence is a powerful weapon. It is helpful in achieving a harmonious life

The crazy optimist

Let us have a look around for the rosiest personalities with the rosiest predictions. For example, Ray Kurzweil, Elon Musk, or Stephen Wolfram. Are they so popular because they make outlandishly optimistic predictions, or do they get to their ideas because of their inherently optimistic mind? That brain's productivity-vs-reward puzzle cannot be resolved because the relationship is circular. The loop generates a positive feedback between the creativity and its reward. That loop can, on rare occasion, go into overdrive and induce manic states. However, the brain has a great deal of protections against that explosive diversion. Natural sleep is one of the best protections. Creative geniuses often go off rails by neglecting sleep. However, with the loss of sleep, manic episodes may swing the brain back to depressive moods, which in turn spell the end to the rosy optimism.

Using an indicative title You ain't seen nothing yet, Wolfram, in his blog about 30 years of Mathematica wrote with his signature wild optimism:

Injecting new paradigms into the world is never easy. But doing so is ultimately what moves forward our civilization, and defines the trajectory of history. And today we’re at a remarkable moment in the ability to bring ubiquitous computational intelligence to the world

For skeptics and pessimists, Wolfram is arrogant. He is also a pathological optimist. I say, judge the man by the fruits. He is a living proof of what an optimistic mind can accomplish.

A productive brain and a happy mind go hand in hand



For more texts on memory, learning, sleep, creativity, and problem solving, see Super Memory Guru