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A Half-Full Glass

Optimize Blog - July 4, 2012 - 0 comments

A study, published in Nature Neuroscience, suggests the brain is very good at processing good news about the future.
Scientists at University College London said about 80% of people were optimists, even if they would not label themselves as such. However, in some people, anything negative is practically ignored – with them retaining a positive world view.
Dr Tali Sharot, lead researcher, gave the example of the risk of cancer being set at 30%. If the patient thought their risk was 40%, then at the end of the experiment they downgraded their own risk to about 31%, she said.
However, if the patient originally thought their risk was 10%, they only marginally increased their risk – they “leaned a little bit, but not a lot”.
When we get positive news, research shows that there is more activity in the brain’s frontal lobes, which are associated with processing errors. With negative information, the most optimistic people had the least activity in the frontal lobes, while the least optimistic had the most.
It suggests the brain is picking and choosing which evidence to listen to.
Dr Sharot said: “Smoking kills messages don’t work as people think their chances of cancer are low. The divorce rate is 50%, but people don’t think it’s the same for them. There is a very fundamental bias in the brain.”
Dr Chris Chambers, neuroscientist from the University of Cardiff, said: “For me, this work highlights something that is becoming increasingly apparent in neuroscience, that a major part of brain function in decision-making is the testing of predictions against reality – in essence all people are ‘scientists’.
“And despite how sophisticated these neural networks are, it is illuminating to see how the brain sometimes comes up with wrong and overly optimistic answers despite the evidence.”
As a leader, risk management is a key component of the role and so we should take this piece of research seriously. Underestimating the risk or seeing a positive outcome where the data suggests otherwise can get us into trouble. Now here at Zeitgeist we are not suggesting that we all become gloom and doom merchants – pessimists, but we are saying that as leaders we need to take a pragmatic view when making decisions and determining risk.
If this fundamental bias in the brain leads us to see situations in an overly positive manner then we need to trust the data to inform our decision making. Good data is the key to making good decisions.
We lead by optimism, enthusiasm and energy but we need to act with pragmatism.

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