Monday, March 12, 2018

Pinker Notwithstanding, We Are Too Optimistic

If you have been following our national conversation about the Enlightenment and progress you know that Steven Pinker made the case that we are overly pessimistic about human progress. Pinker wants us all to take our happiness pills, because they we will embrace the wonders that the Enlightenment has bequeathed us. We will overcome our pessimism and learn a new optimism. It will be therapeutic.

Apparently, Pinker’s sense that we are overly pessimistic derives from the fact that our media is constantly reporting bad news. This is one way to compare optimism and pessimism, but it is not the only way.

Consider another angle, researched by Nobel prize-winning economist, Angus Deaton. His studies have shown that people are likely to be overly optimistic about the future. This observation throws buckets of cold water on the Pinker analysis, making it seem more like a con and less like science.

Dan Kopf reports on the Quartz site:

… according to recent released research (pdf) from the Nobel Prize-winning economist Angus Deaton, you are probably going to be disappointed by your own future—particularly if you are young.

Deaton’s research, published as a working paper with the National Bureau of Economic Research, examines how people across the world of different ages answer the questions above. The analysis is based on data collected on 1.7 million individuals across 166 countries from 2006 to 2016 for the Gallup World Poll. One of Deaton’s primary findings is that people are weirdly hopeful.

“I find a worldwide optimism about the future,” writes Deaton. “[I]n spite of repeated evidence to the contrary, people consistently but irrationally predict they will be better off five years from now.” This pattern of overoptimism holds across all regions of the world.

Other studies have also suggested that people tend to be overly optimistic:

The economist Hannes Schwandt analyzed the responses of Germans who predicted their happiness in five years, and then received follow-up questions about their life satisfaction five years later. He found that these people greatly overestimated their future happiness (pdf).

Why is this so? Deaton suggests that we are hardwired to be optimistic about the future, thus, that it’s an evolutionary adaptation:

Deaton thinks that one possibility is this overoptimism is biologically built into human beings. We need to believe that the future is going to be better than today, or else we wouldn’t be as motivated to survive.“Optimism bias may be part of the normal healthy brain,” he writes. He also thinks that when people are asked about the future, they tend to focus on what could get better in their lives rather than what could get worse. We think about our future fancy apartment and our perfect imaginary partner, not about the strain of debt and our possible divorce.

Deaton and Schwante both find that as we get older, our delusions about our future happiness decrease. Unlike over-optimistic 20-somethings, people in their 50s are only slightly too optimistic about their futures. It seems that as we get older, we come to grips with the fact that the future is probably going to look a lot like the present.

On yet another score, the Pinker thesis seems largely to be wanting… in science.


Jack Fisher said...

Because every graduating kollege senior, after four or six years of Making A Difference on kampus, is exhorted at the graduation ceremony "to go out and change the world", present optimism and future disappointment are guaranteed.

But ... optimism isn't per se a fallacy, it depends on what one is optimistic about. Although no one is promised tomorrow, every Christian, and even some protestants, are optimistic about our ultimate fate.

Shaun F said...

When I see optimistic individuals trying to "Be the change they want to see in the world" - I remind them: Pol Pot, Stalin, Hitler, and Mao lived that saying. I now find optimism un-necessary - but that's because I have faith and hope that I would think is not misplaced.

Ares Olympus said...

Do we have a negativity bias or an optimism bias? A negativity bias forces us to give higher attention to dangers than opportunities, even if supposedly the Chinese symbol for crisis has both.

And we have the quote “We have only two modes — complacency and panic.” James R. Schlesinger, so that shows something of the nature of denial, out of sight, out of mind, as long as it works. The moral of the Ant and the Grasshopper sounds good on paper, but sometimes the grasshopper is right, and you're going to die before winter anyway, so why prepare too much for a future that might never happen.

I suppose debt for me is the ultimate sign of an optimist. If the future is always going to be bigger than the present, then why not borrow lots of money and bet on this? Why not get the biggest house you can afford on your current income, knowing income only goes up? And if you're wrong, you can always default and walk away, and it's the savers who were foolish enough to lend you money who will be gnashing their teeth.