Book Report: Optimism Bias by Tali Sharot

With optimism bias people tend to overestimate the good things that will happen to them and underestimate the bad. They will be optimistic about themselves and the people they surround themselves with, like friends and family—while also being more pessimistic about the world in general. The author, Tali Sharot argues that people who are optimistic about themselves set themselves up to be successful and gives them confidence. Optimistic people are happier and interpret things differently – they see their success is something because of them, and failures due to bad luck or something that does not have to do with them. Anticipation also makes people happy and gives them something to look forward to—getting it right away is not as gratifying as the suspenseful wait that builds excitement. It also acts as a self-fulfilling prophecy, making you try harder to achieve your goals. The author thinks optimism can be beneficial while remaining realistic about risk. We just must better understand the bias and know it is there. Knowing about the bias does not necessarily prevent optimism in general life, but it does make people aware when risky decisions are made.

Regarding the topic about anticipation, a chapter I found particularly interesting was chapter 7 “Why is Friday Better Than Sunday?” And it is because Friday gives us that hope and anticipation of the weekend, despite it being a workday; Sunday gives the dread of having to go back to work, where the day is tainted. Which is why Friday seems to be more liked than Sunday, and Saturday being more liked than both since that is the “relax” day. Ever since I was little, I have preferred Fridays to Sundays as well, and even being in a better mood sometimes because I knew the weekend was coming. Once I was home from school on a Friday, I felt content and relaxed, happy—relieved, even. Dread is a very unpleasant emotion that we do not like to experience and causes great anxiety. We like getting dreaded events out of the way as soon as possible or to avoid it all together. Rather than spending our time stewing in worry and fear, most of us want to face it immediately so it can be over and done with.

There is also a key idea in this book that says optimism shapes the way we view reality—we tend to look at our futures optimistically rather than realistically. This outlook on things make people overestimate the good things that they think will happen to them and underestimate the bad. And there is also the fact, like I stated before, that people only have such optimism when it comes to their own lives. For example, in the Western world the divorce rate is about 40 percent. Yet, newlywed couples are asked if they think they will get divorced, they will usually say it is totally unlikely.

Another idea that was discussed was that we are bad at dealing with bad news. With most brains, we ignore the bad news and think it does not pertain to us. Normally, we re-evaluate our judgments of a situation in the same way that we learn from our mistakes. However, our brain is only good at this, reevaluating the differences between expectations and reality, is when we encounter new positive information—not negative. In the book, the author explained how when participants were asked to estimate their likelihood of getting something like cancer, they gave their answer, and were then given the actual results percentage wise. When asked to reevaluate their decision, most either lowered their response or did not change it at all, feeling non-impacted by the new information. The fMRI scans showed that these signals produced by the frontal lobe was much less powerful if the news was bad, and if they had underestimated their risk of getting cancer. Despite their new knowledge about this, they regarded the statistics irrelevant to them.

I would recommend The Optimism Bias to someone else and found it a very interesting read. The author had some intriguing insights and I found myself immersed in the reading, and rarely ever bored. I also liked the stories and examples that were provided in each chapter, which made the book easier to get invested in. Tali Sharot’s experiments, research, and findings contributed to more of an understanding of optimism. She goes in-depth to look at and explain how the brain creates hope and what happens when it fails, how the brains of optimists and pessimists differ, how emotions strengthen our ability to recollect, how anticipation and dread affect us, and more.