In Support of 'The Optimism Bias'

July 24, 2011

The Optimism Bias: A Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brain by Tali Sharot
If you have made a career in educational technology then you must spend your days fighting against the "optimism bias." Work in technology long enough and you know that it is normal for our technology to fail. Projects take longer to complete than scheduled. Vendors don't deliver products, updates, or patches when promised. Software is overly complex, and all too often poorly designed. Disks crash. Databases degrade. Data will be lost. We will fail to backup. The network will go down.

Why is it that all of us persist in believing in a higher ed that is transformed by technology? Why do we see a bright future for technology enabled learning when the present is often so challenging? Tali Sharot tells us that our brains are hard wired for optimism, and that this evolved adaptation is a net positive for the success of our species. A brain that is designed to see a positive future is a helpful tool for motivating us to work harder today.

The ground that Sharot covers in The Optimism Bias is familiar to readers of popular nonfiction in fields ranging from brain science to social psychology to behavioral economics to evolutionary biology. One hopes that Kahneman and Tversky get a royalty for every time they are mentioned in one of these books.

At this point, there should be no doubt that we are "predictably irrational", why we "blunder", that the "gorilla is indeed invisible", that "choosing is an art", that we are very good at "being wrong", that we enjoy an "upside of irrationality", and that there is a "genius in all of us". And despite what Sharot argues, we are indeed "rational optimists", that our best behaviors (our "drive") comes from internal motivations, and that in the end we are nothing more than "well-dressed apes". Sharot does a great job of covering "how we decide", and that our optimistic brains are susceptible to "nudges", although she doesn't spend much time considering how the "male brain" differs from the "female brain". Our optimism bias helps explain "why we make mistakes", and why it is necessary to "outsmart our mind's hard-wired habits." We "stumble on happiness", as we are poor predictors of what will make us happy and how events in our lives (from winning the lottery to cancer to divorce) will change our outlook on life. Our brains are indeed a "kluge", but if we keep our "minds wide open" we might just outsmart "the ape in the corner office" down the hall, as long as we understand the "brain rules" that govern our behavior.

There seems to be a limited set of social psychological and behavior economics experiments that everyone draws upon to write these popular academic nonfiction books. Sharot adds to this bookshelf, with fluid writing and a good description of her own research (mostly in imaging and behavior). She is a good synthesizer, a decent storyteller, and an able guide to this (well-trod) literature.

I'll keep reading these books because I find them particularly applicable to my role at the intersection of technology and education. From this book, I learned the power of setting optimistic goals for my team ("we will knock this program out of the park!"), while always being aware that optimistic predictions about our future are often the product of our imperfectly evolved brains.

What are you reading?


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