Optimism vs Panglossianism

There’s a well-known cognitive bias known as the Framing Effect, where (for example), people are pretty pleased with a medical procedure that has a 95% success rate, but displeased with one that has a 5% failure rate. Humans have a tendency to focus more on the negative than the positive — a practice with sound evolutionary advantages, but one that can be a bloody nuisance if you want to get something accomplished.

Yes, optimists are sometimes pretty irritating; sometimes you just want to wallow in misery and don’t want to be cheered up. And it’s easy to justify pessimism by calling it “realistic.” You’re with it. You’ve been around the block. You’re not foolish, you know how the world works. If you can’t learn to face the truth, you’ll never grow up.

Pessimism Is Easier…

It’s often easy to be pessimistic: if you can’t find the downside to a situation, you can always find someone to point it out to you. And pessimism doesn’t require you to do anything. If it won’t work, then there’s no point in trying. If you’ve lost, there’s no need to put forth effort. If the project is doomed to failure, there’s no need to fret about it.

…but Optimism is More Helpful

Optimism, on the other hand, requires action. If the machine usually works, then you need to try to fix it; if the project might succeed, then it’s your fault if it fails; if you have a great idea, then you ought to try it out. And there’s frequently a shortage of people willing to help you find the bright side to things.

So… pessimists never do anything. And thus the only people who get stuff done are optimists.

But Try to be Smart About It

That doesn’t mean that you have to believe the world is full of sunshine and rainbows and cuddly kittens. But you do have to be open to the possibility that good things could happen, and moreover that they could happen to you. If you are determined to believe otherwise, you can make a crisis out of any opportunity you come across.

In Risk Analysis we talked about how to determine how much risk you’re taking on, and to be prepared for both the best-case and the worst-case scenarios (they can actually be equally difficult to handle).

Know risks. Analyze risks. Reduce risks as much as possible — eliminate them if you can. But don’t let the possibility of risk convince you to give up hope. When there’s a 95% survival rate, consider the possibility that you might be in the lucky 95%.

Resources for Further Reading
Quieting The Lizard Brain
Bravado