Looking at the bright side of things is often believed to have a positive impact on life, but unrealistic optimism may have a serious downside, finds a new study.
Scientists have found that people who are extremely upbeat even when confronted with legitimate reasons to worry might be suffering from a brain malfunction.
According to them, blind optimism with no regard for actual facts is related to 'faulty' functioning of the brain's frontal lobes.
Lead author of the study, Dr Tali Sharot, of University College London’s neuroimaging centre stated, “Seeing the glass as half full rather than half empty can be a positive thing – it can lower stress and anxiety and be good for our health and well-being.
“But it can also mean we are less likely to take precautionary action, such as practising safe sex or saving for retirement.
"Many experts feel the financial crisis in 2008 was precipitated by analysts overestimating the performance of their assets in the face of clear evidence to the contrary.”
"The more optimistic we are, the less likely we are to be influenced by negative information about the future. This can have benefits for our mental health, but there are obvious downsides." -- Dr Tali Sharot.
Brain activity of 14 volunteers scanned
In order to get some insight into why some people have a positive outlook even in the face of adversity, the researchers conducted a study.
They enrolled 14 volunteers to gauge their level of optimism while undergoing a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner.
As a part of the study, the subjects were presented with a series of 80 negative situations such car theft, being divorced, and developing cancer or Parkinson's disease.
They were asked to estimate the probability of the bad events happening to them in the future.
While still on the scanner, the participants were given the true probabilities of the bad events occurring. They were then asked to rate their estimates again. In addition, they were asked to fill a questionnaire to measure their optimism.
Revelations of the study
The study found that the human brain reacts well to positive news, but is biased when confronted with bad news. If the information shared was better than anticipated, the participants exhibited activity in the frontal lobe and updated their initial estimates.
However, if the odds were worse, optimists were inclined to display least activity in the frontal lobe or adjust their original answer.
Dr Sharot said, "Our study suggests that we pick and choose the information that we listen to.
"The more optimistic we are, the less likely we are to be influenced by negative information about the future. This can have benefits for our mental health, but there are obvious downsides."
The study was conducted at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging and was published in the journal 'Nature Neuroscience'.