the optimism bias by tali sharot book summary

The Optimism Bias by Tali Sharot

Summarized by Vishal Kataria

The Book in One Paragraph

The optimism bias is the tendency to overestimate the chances of encountering positive events in the future and underestimate the chances of experiencing negative events. This bias is the reason why we take actions that make our lives better, like studying, taking up a job, getting married, and making friends. Without it, we would never get out of bed. If we learn how to use this bias to our benefit, we can reduce stress and anxiety and instead, motivate ourselves to act and be more productive.

The Optimism Bias Book Summary

This is my book summary of The Optimism Bias by Tali Sharot. It’s a collection of quotes from the book and my own thoughts. This summary includes key lessons and takeaways from the book.

  • The episodes we recollect from the past are not always accurate. And the neural system that enables us to do this may not have been developed for that purpose at all. Instead, according to researchers, the core function of this system is to imagine the future.

  • Brain imaging studies show that the same brain structures that get used when we recollect our past get engaged when we think of the future.

  • Close your eyes and imagine a future. Bright chances are you’ll imagine an optimistic one, where you’re successful at work, have better relationships, are financially secure, and have stable health. Unemployment, divorce, debt, Alzheimer’s disease, and any number of misfortunes rarely appear in our predictions.

  • Human beings’ brains are hard-wired to look at the bright side of things because optimism is crucial for our survival.

  • Our capacity to envision a different time and place instead of merely taking action for the present let us plan ahead and greatly increased our odds of sticking around as a species. We save food and resources for a time when we expect them to be less available. We delay gratification and endure hard times in hopes of a better future.

  • The optimism bias protects us from accurately perceiving the pain and difficulties the future holds. To an extent, it saves us from seeing our life options as limited. As a result, we feel less stressed and anxious and are motivated to act and become productive.

  • We can identify cognitive biases and illusions in others, but not in ourselves. That’s why we assume we’re less prone to bias than most people in the world. This means we hold the illusion that we’re immune to illusions. This is the irony of cognitive illusions.

  • An introspection illusion is a strong sense in people that they can directly access the reasons for their decisions and actions. But most mental processes behind our thoughts are unavailable for conscious interpretation, which means people are unaware of their unawareness.

  • The introspection illusion leads to a condition called choice blindness, where we come up with reasons to justify our choices rather than actually introspecting to check whether they were the right ones in the first place.

  • Thinking too much can lead to suboptimal judgments. People who make quick choices by evaluating fewer options are often more satisfied with their selection than those who take the time to consciously evaluate options.

  • Our brains are plastic. They keep expanding, shrinking, and adapting according to our changing needs.

  • Believing that a goal isn’t just attainable but also highly likely leads people to act vigorously in order to achieve it.

  • Sociologist Robert Merton coined the term self-fulfilling prophecy. According to him, the prophecy, in the beginning, is a false definition of the situation that demands a new behavior which eventually makes the originally false assumption come true. The prophet cites the actual course of events as proof that he was right all along.

  • Humans are hugely affected by the expectations placed upon them. Your employee will be more productive, your spouse will be more loving, and your child is more likely to do well at school if you expect them to be.

  • Likewise, people are less likely to do well if others hold negative expectations regarding their abilities. Even teenagers’ alcohol consumption has been shown to be greatly influenced by parental expectations.

  • Individuals have a strong tendency to conform to what’s expected from them.

  • The notion that holding low expectations will protect us from disappointment is known as defensive pessimism. It doesn’t just lead to worse results; it also fails to protect us from negative emotions when unwanted outcomes occur. Thus, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

  • Optimists hold positive views of the future, and it positively impacts results in the decades to come. An increase of one tiny point on the optimism scale of a student in the first year of law school translated into an extra $33,000 each year.

  • Deciding what will make us happy is not an easy task, especially when advertisements keep portraying new products as means to happiness. But surprisingly, it’s small things like tending to plants, spending time with a partner or children, taking walks in nature, and exercise, that release oxytocin in the brain which uplifts our mood and makes us happier.

  • Our happiness depends on the flood of feelings constantly generated within us more than by reflecting on our lives. But questionnaires on well-being take the opposite route. They ask us to reflect and assess our general satisfaction with life rather than diving into our daily emotions.

  • Learned helplessness is a state that occurs when someone experiences a stressful situation repeatedly. As a result, people think they cannot control the situation. So they stop trying, even when the opportunities to change become visible.

  • Depression is not a malfunction of one neurotransmitter alone, nor is it a disease due to the deficit of one or two brain structures. It’s a system failure like many mental disorders. This system includes the hippocampus, the striatum, and other brain regions such as the thalamus and habenula.

  • The cure to depression could lie in targeting just one region. Changes in a single area of the brain can modify the functions of other connected structures.

  • It’s good to be optimistic, but we must also be realistic about the risks involved. It’s important to protect our downside before we take an ambitious leap.

  • We’re not born with an innate understanding of our biases, but we can become aware of them. This enables us to protect ourselves from them. It’s possible to strike a balance, to believe we will stay healthy, but get medical insurance anyway; to be certain the sun will shine, but grab an umbrella on our way out during the rainy season — just in case.

About The Author

Vishal Kataria is a writer and podcaster who shares lessons he has learned about productivity, learning new skills, and self-improvement.

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