This weekend may have brought disappointing news for English rugby fans – although well done to the Welsh – but there's always next time. Or maybe we'll win the football. For non-sports fans, this kind of optimism in the face of persistent failure seems crazy. But have you ever wondered why some people continue to look on the bright side of life – whether it's about sport or more serious life events – when it seems to an outsider that the odds are stacked against them?
To see if they can explain what's going on, Dr Tali Sharot and her team at University College London have done an interesting experiment in brain scanning, which they've published in this week's Nature Neuroscience.
The scientists persuaded 19 volunteers to lie in a machine known as an fMRI scanner (short for functional magnetic resonance imaging), which measures activity levels in different parts of the brain. Then they asked each participant to estimate the chances of 80 different unfortunate events befalling them – such as having their car stolen, or developing a serious disease like Alzheimer's. After each guess, the scientists told the person the average probability of that event happening to them.
Once each volunteer had been through the scanner, the researchers asked them to to fill in a questionnaire designed to test their levels of optimism, and have another go at estimating their chances of each event happening to them. And that's when they noticed something interesting.
It seems that the volunteers did shift their estimates of the chances of something bad happening, but only if it turned out that they had previously thought their chances were higher. So if they had thought they had a 40 per cent chance of something bad happening, and were told the risk was only 20 per cent, then they would adjust their estimate downwards. But if they thought they had a low chance of something happening, and were told the average risk was higher, they tended to ignore the data and make a smaller adjustment to their guess.
The clue to what's going on here came from the brain scans. The scientists found increased activity in the frontal lobes of the brain if the chances of a bad thing happening turned out to be lower than expected – suggesting that the person was in some way recalibrating their beliefs. But if the chances of something bad happening was actually higher than the person thought, the scientists noticed much less brain activity. And the more optimistic a person was, according to the questionnaire, the less brain activity they saw, suggesting that the person was disregarding the information and not processing it.
It's important to point out that this study only involved 19 people, so it's pretty small. And fMRI imaging studies can be notoriously difficult to interpret. But it certainly helps to shed some light on how someone's character – whether they're an optimist or a pessimist – influences how they make decisions.
On a simple level, this research helps to explain why England fans cling to our belief that we really could win every tournament we enter, whether it's rugby, football, tennis or anything else. But on a more serious note, looking on the bright side of life can be very important as a way of dealing with challenging life events, such as major illness, divorce, or being a victim of crime. But in other ways, it can be quite damaging. Mistakenly believing that your chances of a specific event happening to you are much lower than they actually are can influence behaviour – such as quitting smoking, practising safe sex or even saving for your retirement.
And financial experts are known to underestimate risks and be overly optimistic about potential profits – so maybe the subconscious reluctance of the financial world to accept the real risks of certain investments may have unwittingly led to the current financial crisis.
Part of the show Outpacing Petrol - Biofuels and Hydrogen from the 9th Oct 2011