Hope Springs Eternal

Tali Sharot write The Optimism Bias, a book on why humans almost always view the future as hopeful and sunny.  She has studied hundreds of subjects, young and old, and found that no matter the odds, we always believe that tomorrow will be better. We’re apparently hard wired that way.  The fascinating question is: why?

One of the characteristics that set humans apart from most other creatures is our ability to see into the future; to travel ahead in time.  It’s what helps us plan.  We can for instance, make a decision to go grocery shopping even though we just eaten a big meal; we know we’ll be hungry later, and we’re out of eggs, so we shop.  

The catch is that we also know, through our ability to see the future, that we’re going to die.  Everyone does.  Scientists believe that the knowledge of death, when our ancestors’ brains evolved enough to understand it, could have been devastating.  It could have resulted in a debilitating fear and depression that would have stopped evolution in its tracks, unless a cognitive bias toward good outcomes evolved at the same time.  In other words, being optimistic saved the species.  It might still be doing so today.

“If you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re right.”  That’s the essence of the concept of the self-fulfilling prophecy. Some people believe that self-fulfilling prophecies don’t just predict the future, they influence it.  Always the optimist, I believe it too.  I believe that you can influence the outcome of an event by believing that you will win (or make the sale, or get the job.)  And I’m not alone.  Many professional athletes practice visualization before an event.  They run the course or play the game over and over in their minds, negotiating turns, making the play, overcoming obstacles, and of course, winning. No one ever visualizes an opponent coming up from behind to steal the lead. 

The term “self-fulfilling prophesy” was coined by American sociologist Robert Merton in the 1940’s. (He also coined the terms “role model” and “unintended consequences,” so he was on quite a roll.) Scientists believe that self-fulfilling prophesies can influence everything from academic performance to surviving a deadly disease. 

We humans also have a confirmation bias that leads us to observe data that supports our personal beliefs.  If you believe your boss dislikes you, you’ll find dozens of clues a week that support your theory.  If you believe he likes you, you’ll also find dozens of actions that support that theory.  Our expectations form the world around us in part because we believe the “evidence” that our mind supplies.

Sometimes, our expectations form reality because we take action on the things we believe. If I believe that my son is a gifted athlete, I may spend more money on training or coaching or equipment.  Over time, these investments may indeed help him achieve more in sports.  If I hadn’t believed that he was great, I might have invested less, thereby ensuring less success.

If you believe your next job offer is right around the corner, you may act differently than if you don’t think you have a chance.  You may dress differently, stand a little taller, smile more, and take time to write a better cover letter.  Eventually you may create a self-fulfilling prophesy of your own.

“Nobody can go back and start a new beginning, but anyone can start today and make a new ending.” (Author Maria Robinson.)

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