Dr Caroline Leaf and the myth of optimism bias

“What are little girls are made of?  Sugar and spice, and all things nice.”

It sounds sweet doesn’t it?  We like to connect with these rosy little memes that warm our cockles and make us feel good about the world and ourselves.  We think of all of the examples in our own experience, which seems to confirm the saying.  We may think of a few examples that don’t quite fit, but they’re just the exception that proves the rule.

It doesn’t seem to matter what the saying or proverb is, we usually just assume it’s true.  Think of some other examples:
“Blondes have more fun.”
“Women can’t read maps.”
“White guys can’t dance.”

In all of these things, we tend to experience what psychologists call confirmation bias (Princeton University, 2014), our own mini-delusion in which we fool ourselves into believing a half-truth.  It looks right on first glance, and we can easily think of a few confirming examples, so without deeper inspection, we assume it must be true.

When Dr Leaf proclaims that,

“Science shows we are wired for love with a natural optimism bias”

the same process kicks in.  But in truth, science doesn’t show anything of the sort.  What science shows is that we learn love and fear, and our genetics influences the way we see the world, our personality.

We are prewired to LEARN to love and fear.  It doesn’t come naturally.  We require exposure to both love and to fear for these emotions to develop.  The Bucharest Early Intervention Project is a study looking at the long-term psychological and physical health of children in Bucharest, one group who remained in an orphanage, and the other, a group of children that were eventually adopted.  Analysis of the cohort of the two groups of children showed that negative affect was the same for both groups.  However positive affect and emotional reactivity was significantly reduced in the institutionalised children (Bos et al., 2011).  This shows that children who lived in an institution all of their lives and given limited emotional stimulation had lower levels of positive affect (ie: love, happiness) compared to a child that was adopted.

The children in the institution did not have high positive affect because they were not shown love.  Those children who were adopted were higher on positive affect because they were shown love by their adopted parents.  Both groups were exposed to distress and fear during their time in the orphanage, so their negative affect was the same across both groups.  Thus, love and fear don’t come naturally.  They need to be learned.

Personality is “the combination of characteristics or qualities that form an individuals distinctive character.” (“Oxford Dictionary of English – 3rd Edition,” 2010) As Professor Greg Henriques wrote in psychology today, “Personality traits are longstanding patterns of thoughts, feelings, and actions which tend to stabilize in adulthood and remain relatively fixed. There are five broad trait domains, one of which is labeled Neuroticism, and it generally corresponds to the sensitivity of the negative affect system, where a person high in Neuroticism is someone who is a worrier, easily upset, often down or irritable, and demonstrates high emotional reactivity to stress.” (Henriques, 2012) Personality is heavily influenced by genetics, with up to 60% of our personality pre-determined by our genes (Vinkhuyzen et al., 2012), expressed through the function of the serotonin and dopamine transporter systems in our brain (Caspi, Hariri, Holmes, Uher, & Moffitt, 2010; Chen et al., 2011; Felten, Montag, Markett, Walter, & Reuter, 2011).

So some people *ARE* natural optimists – their genetic heritage blessed them with a rosy outlook and their early life experiences cemented it in.  These naturally optimistic people, and the people who know them, are the ones who take Dr Leaf’s word as truth because they see it in themselves or their friends.  But the fact that some people are naturally wired for pessimism or a neurotic personality disproves Dr Leaf’s assertion.

Its important that Dr Leaf’s misleading meme is seen for what it is.  If we assume that we’re all pre-wired for love and optimism, then those who are pessimistic must be deficient or deviant, and the fact they can’t change must mean they are incompetent or lazy.  If we know the truth, those who are less optimistic won’t be unnecessarily judged or marginalised.

I should point out that what I’ve said isn’t a free licence to be cranky or sullen all the time.  The natural pessimist still needs to be able to negotiate their way through life, and being a misery-guts makes it hard to get what you need from other people in any business, social or interpersonal relationship.  We have the ability to learn, and the person with a neurotic personality can still learn ways of dealing with people in a positive way.

But if you naturally see the glass half-empty, don’t tell yourself that you’re abnormal, or that you aren’t good enough.  You are who you are.  Accept who you are, because while there are weaknesses inherent to having neurotic personality traits, there are also strengths, such as the enhanced awareness of deception, or protection from gullibility (Forgas & East, 2008).

A good thing to have when searching for the truth.

 References

Bos, K., Zeanah, C. H., Fox, N. A., Drury, S. S., McLaughlin, K. A., & Nelson, C. A. (2011). Psychiatric outcomes in young children with a history of institutionalization. Harv Rev Psychiatry, 19(1), 15-24. doi: 10.3109/10673229.2011.549773

Caspi, A., Hariri, A. R., Holmes, A., Uher, R., & Moffitt, T. E. (2010). Genetic sensitivity to the environment: the case of the serotonin transporter gene and its implications for studying complex diseases and traits. Am J Psychiatry, 167(5), 509-527. doi: 10.1176/appi.ajp.2010.09101452

Chen, C., Chen, C., Moyzis, R., Stern, H., He, Q., Li, H., . . . Dong, Q. (2011). Contributions of dopamine-related genes and environmental factors to highly sensitive personality: a multi-step neuronal system-level approach. PLoS One, 6(7), e21636. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0021636

Felten, A., Montag, C., Markett, S., Walter, N. T., & Reuter, M. (2011). Genetically determined dopamine availability predicts disposition for depression. Brain Behav, 1(2), 109-118. doi: 10.1002/brb3.20

Forgas, J. P., & East, R. (2008). On being happy and gullible: Mood effects on skepticism and the detection of deception. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 44, 1362-1367.

Henriques, G. (2012). (When) Are You Neurotic?  Retrieved from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/theory-knowledge/201211/when-are-you-neurotic

Oxford Dictionary of English – 3rd Edition. (2010)   (3rd edition ed.). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Princeton University. (2014). Confirmation bias.   Retrieved January 10, 2014, from http://www.princeton.edu/~achaney/tmve/wiki100k/docs/Confirmation_bias.html

Vinkhuyzen, A. A., Pedersen, N. L., Yang, J., Lee, S. H., Magnusson, P. K., Iacono, W. G., . . . Wray, N. R. (2012). Common SNPs explain some of the variation in the personality dimensions of neuroticism and extraversion. Transl Psychiatry, 2, e102. doi: 10.1038/tp.2012.27

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