"The life in us is like the water in the river. It may rise this year higher than man has ever known it, and flood the parched uplands; even this may be the eventful year." (Thoreau)

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Unrealistic Optimism: a gift from our ancestors

I read this study once about rats* and optimism. I found a good summary of it by psychologist Susan Vaughn**, along with her thoughts. I've abridged it below, but to read the whole thing click here. Or just skip to my own thoughts at the bottom. Her bottom line conclusion from the study is that being too much in touch with reality can make you so depressed that you're less able to cope with it; though optimism is unrealistic, it gives you the necessary hope to deal with the harshness of life, to survive, thrive, and maybe succeed.

THE STUDY: A scientist broke the rats in his laboratory into random groups. The rats in the first group were placed in a big tank of water made opaque with milk. They had to swim for a set amount of time. Their tank had a tiny island hidden under the water on which they could perch without having to swim.

The rats in the second group swam for exactly the same amount of time in the milky water as those in the first group. But their tank had no island. After their swims, the rats in both groups were plucked from the water.

Another day the researcher once again made them swim one by one, this time all the rats swam in a tank without an island. They were rescued before just before they would have drowned, and their time recorded. He found that the rodents whose island had been there for them the first time swam for over twice as long, looking for the island where it had previously been.

VAUGHN'S THOUGHTS: I believe that optimism depends upon our ability to construct and sustain the illusion of an island. I think this ability is the result of a series of inner psychological processes that can be improved upon with practice.

Why would we want to learn to sustain such a fiction anyway, searching for an illusory island that may not be there at all? After all, if we sat in the movies day after day, we might enjoy some amazing illusions, but they wouldn’t alter the reality we faced when we left the theater, blinking in the glare of our problems. 

In fact, studies suggest that reality is overrated. Depressed people were much more accurate than those who were not currently depressed at estimating the risks of all sorts of disasters befalling them, from plane crashes to their chances of being hit and killed by a bus when crossing the street on any given day. Psychologists call it “depressive realism.”

When we look at reality stripped bare of the illusions I consider crucial, what we are really seeing is our fundamental helplessness and lack of control in the face of an indifferent universe, our elemental aloneness, our failure to achieve successes that can change the basic parameters of our mortality. And perhaps most importantly, depression and the bald-faced look at reality it provides for us tend to yank us out of our engagement with life, our ability to exist in the moment. As psychiatrist Victor Frankl concluded after surviving the dismal reality of Auschwitz, we must each search for and ultimately construct our own meanings in order to survive. [Frankl found that if prisoners didn't have faith in a future, they were less likely to survive]

Optimism is also to some extent a self-fulfilling prophecy in the sense that if you look for that island for over twice as long, you better your chances of finding it if it’s there. Other people notice and respond positively to the outlook of optimists, giving them an advantage in work, love, and play. In addition to perseverance, optimism breeds popularity and the success that so often accompanies it. ...Optimistic swimmers who are told their times in an important race are worse than they actually are will do even better the second time around.  
...I believe that the island’s importance is that it gives us something to swim toward when we feel overwhelmed, tired to the bone, and in danger of giving up and going under.


From the people I know of depression and how it can make getting everyday-life-tasks difficult... this is an interesting idea to contemplate.

I would add.... Escapism and optimism aren't the same thing. Pessimists and depressed people go to movies to escape their problems too--that's not the kind of "illusion" that the rats in the tub believed in. The rats didn't swim twice as long because someone distracted them with a nice ratty story. They believed there was something in the tub that would help them survive.

Also, the rats had a reason to believe there was an island--it was based on experience. So it wasn't total illusion. Not faith (the belief in things unseen, un-experienced.) I can imagine someone who's had only shitty things happen to them saying: How can I be this optimistic, I've never seen the island!

I collect people's success/survival stories. If one is going to be all *realistic* about it, it's improbable that good things only happen to other people. AND it's okay to then be a bit UNrealistic and believe that maybe LOTS of good things are going to happen to you... because that's the survival mechanism. It's a mechanism to help you believe slightly unrealistic things!

Not crazy things, cause the rats had seen the island. It's a mechanism to help you believe that you'll get out of the concentration camp one day, even though you've seen hundreds die. That you will get a job, though there's so much unemployment. That your book will be published, though the odds are really against you. 

And you still have find reasons to survive the camp, and work at looking for a job, and write the best book you can. Optimism isn't Dream-of-Jeannie-nose-twitch magic or big-ole-hand-of-God. The rats didn't hope for an island to appear, and it appeared. They swam twice as long with the conviction that "That fracking island has got to be here somewhere!" Optimism is trying longer and harder than everyone else.

It's not woo. It's not Sally Sunshine's Puff Pastry. It's a random mutation that made our ancestor Zurg push on around one more hillside for a new source of water, while our non-ancestor Zorg cursed the skies, laid down on the dry ground, and gave up. And on a more serious note, optimism is probably what drives a family to walk for a month from Somalia to Kenya during a famine, despite the odds some or all of them will die along the way. 

The rest of this week I'll share optimism stories. Here's one of Victor's:
"Another time we were at work in a trench. The dawn was grey around us; grey was the sky above; grey the snow in the pale light of dawn; grey the rags in which my fellow prisoners were clad, and grey their faces....  I was struggling to find the reason for my sufferings, my slow dying. In a last violent protest against the hopelessness of imminent death, I sensed my spirit piercing through the enveloping gloom. I felt it transcend that hopeless, meaningless world, and from somewhere I heard a victorious 'Yes' in answer to my question of the existence of an ultimate purpose. At that moment a light was lit in a distant farmhouse, which stood on the horizon as if painted there, in the midst of the miserable grey of a dawning morning in Bavaria. 'Et lux in tenebris lucent'--and the light shineth in the darkness." (Victor Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning)
 One of the best music videos of the 80s:

*I would have been willing to take human hearsay on this one. Do we need an animal study on EVERYthing?? I'm so out. OUT. Poor ratties.

** This is her footnote about the study, from her book Half Empty Half Full.



Judy,Judy,Judy. said...

I thoroughly believe in escapism. However. I think there is escapism that serves and escapism that doesn't. Escaping into books or movies with happy endings, yes.

Escaping into god or religion, no. It leads to things like hatred of gay people, etc. Things that cause more need for escapism. It's like a vicious circle. Need to escape - look for god - find hatred - need to escape even more - get more wrapped up in god - find more hatred, etc. This is what I have seen and fought all my life. ymmv

I love Peter Gabriel. The song Sledgehammer can often cheer me up.

I also collect 'success' stories. Bring on your optomistic fuel. I look forward to reading it!

Skye said...

In many ways, I'm like the rat in the tub that had no island. Yet, I look at my childhood as having that island. Just haven't seen it much if at all since my teen years when the first things went to hell.

Escapism does exactly that: helps me escape the bad feelings. That's as far as I've gotten so far.

London Mabel said...

Religion as escapism, hmm I'd have to give that some thought. I've always seen it as: some people use it as a substitute for finding their own identity. That's why they react so strongly when any part of their belief system is threatened. Because their identity is threatened. Whereas if your religious beliefs are external to your core beliefs, it's not so hard to be flexible about them, to change with the times, be willing to consider issues like gay marriage, be open to other faiths, etc. I pretty much extrapolated that from Stephen Covey, and found it played out when the church I used to be underwent major doctrinal changes.The people who made the doctrines their core beliefs--rather than basic values like Love Others--were the ones most shattered by the changes.

But I never felt that religion took me away from reality?

As for escapism into books etc. ... I tried not to segue too far into it. Maybe in another post.

Anonymous said...

Does anyone know the reference to
the "Island study" with the rats?

I would like to check it out.

Anonymous said...

The reference is:

Richard G.M. Morris
(University of St. Andrews)

Spatial localization does not require the presence of local cues.

LEARNING AND MOTIVATION 12, 239-260 (1981)

(I think the optimism story does
not follow from the research and is
highly romanticized)

London Mabel said...

Here's a description of this kind of study, invented by Morris:


I'll add a screen shot of the footnote from Vaughn's book. Optimism wasn't the point of the study, it was just something Vaughn drew from it.

Here's a TIME article by another psychologist that describes human studies about the optimism bias.



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