I was on the phone the other night with a friend. She is in a bit of bind. Every conversation we’ve had recently, we’ve been doing the same thing. We analyze every minutiae of her situation, as women are wont to, and come to the same conclusion. Things are not good nor are they bad. It is just limbo.
This time the conversation was different. We did not get into the usual active engaging discussion about the situation. I could sense she was reluctant. When we finally got to talking about it, it seemed as if the despondency was finally getting to her. At that moment I did something a bit out of character for me. Instead of my usual, here is what I see, it is your choice to make, spiel, I told her what to do. What was even more surprising was what I said. I said (I paraphrase, but..) be irrationally optimistic.
I said what I said instinctively. Somehow I felt that there was a strong element of logic to the suggestion. It certainly seemed to work for her particular set of circumstances. But, it made me wonder, does it make sense to be optimistic when there is no reason to be optimistic?
The answer is yes! There is evidence.
No, I am not talking about Oprah and the positive visualization from her latest guru. I am talking about experimental evidence.
Here is the paper in question: Is luck on my side? Optimism, pessimism and ambiguity aversion.
The experiment conducted by Dr. Briony Pulford at the University of Leicester in the UK, is a twist on a well know experiment measuring human aversion to risk and uncertainty called the Ellsberg experiment. In the classic experiment, there are two urns filled with a mix of balls of two colors, red and black. Urn A contains a known ratio of red to black, lets say, 50:50. Urn B has an unknown ratio, which means it could be any combination of red to black, like 1:99, 30:70 or 50:50. The subjects in the experiment are asked to choose a color, then an urn from which to blindly pick a ball. If the ball they draw out is the color they picked, they win a prize. Human beings, in experiment after experiment, overwhelmingly prefer urn A. They don’t like the ambiguity of urn B.
In this particular study Pulford, repeated the same experiment with a group of undergraduate students. This time though, she gave them a standardized test to gauge their levels of optimism called the ELOT (Extended Life Orientation Test), before the urn experiment. She then looked at the how a person’s level of optimism correlated with their uncertainty aversion. She found that, the lower you are on the optimism scale, the greater your aversion to uncertainty. On the flip side, those on at the higher end of the optimism scale were far more willing to pick the ambiguous urn B.
Somehow being optimistic makes uncertainly a little less scary.
I suspect this is what I understood, instinctively, as I was on the phone with my friend. When we are faced with ambiguous situations, when it is simply impossible to figure out what the right thing to do is, we have a tendency to freeze. Often the choices we need to make at moments like these are far more consequential than pulling a ball out of an urn. So we put it off for as long as we can.
It even seems sensible to do just that, to wait, to look at the all the options, to weigh the pros and cons. Yet, it is this stalling that really takes a toll. This is what I now realize. As terrifying as the decisions themselves may seem to be, the real suffering comes from the fear and the prolonging of the decision making process.
Optimism is a belief about the future. It is a belief that, “I am lucky,” and the outcome will always be good for me. This makes uncertainty a lot less daunting; perhaps even exciting.
So be optimistic because it is the logical thing to do.