Text: Bertrand Tappy
Photo: David Cooper / GettyImages, Bob Galbraith / AP

The Science of Optimism

Recent research using magnetic resonance imaging shows that our brain is naturally programmed to see the glass as half full.


The researcher Tali Sharot has used magnetic resonance imaging to shed light on the mystery of the “optimism bias” of the human brain.
View her TED conference on this s

Tali Sharot's TED presentation

Economic crisis, political tensions, the poor performance of our national football team... World news floods us with current events that give us little to be happy about. However, Tali Sharot, director of the Affective Brain Lab at University College London, says our brain is wired to see life through rose-coloured glasses, regardless of what happens.

For several years now, the British researcher has been studying why our brain obsessively tends to remember good news over bad. That is the “optimism bias”, and about 8 out of 10 of us suffer from it. Chances are you’re a serial optimist without even realising it. You don’t think so? To prove it, Tali Sharot often uses a very simple exercise. Try to imagine yourself one year from now, then five years, then ten. Take a minute to imagine yourself in this hypothetical future.

Unless you’re cheating (because you’re very smart readers and you know what we’re getting at), you are probably thinking of a pleasant time – a holiday, a day with your children (who have grown), a degree, a promotion and so on. Like 8 people out of 10, you have just tipped the scales in favour of happy events over bad ones (illness, war, divorce, etc.).

Los Angeles Lakers
When the Los Angeles Lakers won the NBA championship in 1987, coach Pat Riley announced that his team would surely win the championship the following year. Many viewed his prediction as a taunt, as no team had ever succeeded in garnering two titles back to back. But that is exactly what the Lakers did. Obviously it is not enough just to want it to happen. However, believing in a bright future increases the chances of that outcome actually coming true, wrote Robert Merton, the father of the “self-fulfilling prophecy”. Optimism drives people into the mindset of pursuing that distortion of reality. Subjective reality is therefore more likely to become objective reality. By telling themselves that they would be champions a second year in a row, Pat Riley’s players probably trained harder than if they had believed it to be a hopeless endeavour.

“Optimism has a huge influence on our lives, especially regarding our ability to make choices, whether it’s choosing a profession, getting married or even deciding what to have for lunch,” says Tali Sharot. “For example, when a couple gets married, the young husband and wife can’t imagine divorcing one day. But statistics show that 40% of them will.” What this means is that people know bad things will happen, but think they mostly happen to other people. That attitude can either cost us our life, or save it.

Thinking positive starts in our amygdala

When it comes to health, our optimism bias can work in two ways, with a very different impact. The first involves the strong warning labels found, for example, on cigarette packaging. With the “optimism bias”, all that warning is in vain. The brain does indeed record the information and the fear it causes, but the message it retains is that if cigarettes kill, they’ll probably kill our neighbour. Unfortunately, this illogical reasoning can result in devastating consequences.

In her book loaded with examples that connect behavioural studies with brain function, Tali Sharot also discusses a study by Professor Richard Schulz from the University of Pittsburgh published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The survey of 238 cancer patients revealed that, after factoring in age and state of health, those who were more pessimistic about their chances of survival had a greater likelihood of dying within the next seven months than their more optimistic counterparts. In this case, the tendency to look on the bright side of life has a genuine positive impact.

Optimism does affect our judgement, but the main question remains: where does this process of distorting reality come from? To find out, Tali Sharot used magnetic resonance imaging. With her team, she asked her volunteer subjects to think of a number of positive experiences (promotion, romantic encounter, etc.) and then negative ones (break-up, losing their wallet) while undergoing an MRI. The findings were conclusive. When the brain imagined something positive, the amygdala (located deep within the brain and responsible for our emotions) and the rostral anterior cingulate cortex (which modulates the activation of areas of the brain linked with motivation) were actively involved. These results line up with other older research that demonstrated that these same areas did not function properly in people suffering from depression.

Another study, also conducted using imaging, tried to confront subjects with good or bad news to the question, “What do you think is the percentage risk that you’ll develop cancer?”. The answers could vary widely. But when participants were given the statistical figure – 30% average risk of developing the disease – those who had overestimated the risk easily brought their first estimate down, while those who had predicted a risk significantly lower than the average found it much harder to raise their estimate to the objective figure.

The culprit? The right inferior frontal gyrus, responsible for processing bad news, wasn’t doing its job, especially with the optimists. “Of course, this is nothing revolutionary,” says Tali Sharot. “Now we’re sure that we have isolated the exact part of the brain implicated. And the field of study remains so vast that we still have plenty to discover!” Pretty optimistic, eh?


We generally prefer the weekend to the work week. But if you ask someone if they like Friday or Sunday better, you’re probably in for a surprise. Friday wins out. Why? Tali Sharot believes that the majority of human beings favour something they have to look forward to, rather than a reward they can have immediately but that will soon be over.

Optimism and life expectancy

In her book, Tali Sharot tells the story of a study conducted on 238 cancer patients. Those who were more pessimistic about their chances of survival were more likely to die
within seven months than their more optimistic counterparts. In this case, the tendency to look
on the bright side of life has a genuine positive impact