Maintaining optimism in the face of reality. It seems like a case of appropriate timing. On the day when the leaders of Germany and France declared yet again that some time soon they will have a solution to Europe’s financial problems, the journal nature neuroscience brings us this study of the way the mind works:

How unrealistic optimism is maintained in the face of reality

The abstract summarises it this way:

Unrealistic optimism is a pervasive human trait that influences domains ranging from personal relationships to politics and finance. How people maintain unrealistic optimism, despite frequently encountering information that challenges those biased beliefs, is unknown. We examined this question and found a marked asymmetry in belief updating. Participants updated their beliefs more in response to information that was better than expected than to information that was worse. This selectivity was mediated by a relative failure to code for errors that should reduce optimism. Distinct regions of the prefrontal cortex tracked estimation errors when those called for positive update, both in individuals who scored high and low on trait optimism. However, highly optimistic individuals exhibited reduced tracking of estimation errors that called for negative update in right inferior prefrontal gyrus. These findings indicate that optimism is tied to a selective update failure and diminished neural coding of undesirable information regarding the future.

Dr Tali Sharot, the lead researcher on the project, explained to the BBC how 14 people were rated for their level of optimism and tested in a brain scanner. Each was asked how likely 80 different “bad events” — like having cancer — were to happen. They were then told how likely this was in reality. At the end of the session, the participants were asked to rate the probabilities again. There was a marked difference in the updated scores of optimists depending on whether the reality was good or bad news.

On being told that the risk of getting cancer was actually 30%, if the patient thought their risk was 40%, then at the end of the experiment they downgraded their own risk to about 31%, Dr Tarot found. 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”.

A backbench example. The Labor member for Moreton Graham Perrett was given the job this morning of peddling the official Labor spin line on the way into the House of Representatives this morning that all the speculation about a leadership challenge was just nonsense.

Graham Perrett MPGraham Perrett giving us an example of unrealistic optimism?

“There is going to be no challenge, there is going to be no election under Mr Rudd,” Perrett told the journalistic chooks assembled at the entrance to Parliament House for their morning feeding session. Labor would continue to govern until an election was due in late 2013. “Then we’ll go to the election to look at the proud record of the Gillard Labor government.”

Anything he can do I  can do better. Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd can speak to the dad of a pot smoking youth in Bali but the Prime Minister spoke to the boy himself. So there. Nah, nah, ne nah, nah! Australian politics has gone mad.

No loss for PM in losing a vote. The amazing thing about the parliamentary performance of this minority government is not that it might lose a vote in the House of Representatives this week but that it has gone through the last year without a loss. And not getting the numbers for its asylum seeker legislation would be no loss at all really. Beaten in the H0use or beaten in the Senate — what difference does it make. Either way, Julia Gillard will be able to blame Tony Abbott for the next load of boat people

Peter Fray

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