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Staring at the tsunami
Voltaire, optimism and selective updating
For a while I became obsessed by a video recorded on the day of the 2004 Southeast Asian tsunami.
It shows an older white guy, probably a tourist, standing on the beach in Thailand watching as the water recedes and the tsunami comes into view. As people run, as the wave grows, he just stands there. People start shouting at him, desperately pointing to the wave, trying to warn him. The wave grows, rushing closer and closer.
Even now when I watch this video I still think he’s going to move. Of course he never moves. He doesn’t move an inch. The wave comes ashore and swallows him.
For a long time I thought a lot about this man and what was going on in his head in his final minutes (I won’t link to it, but you can still find the video on YouTube if you’re inclined). He had more than enough time to save himself. Why didn’t he move?
The psychology of risk and optimism can provide some answers.
In the 1980s researcher Neil Weinstein identified what he called unrealistic optimism. In Weinstein’s experiment, people were given a variety of bad outcomes (ill health, tragic accident) and asked to rank their chance of the bad thing happening to them versus the chance that thing would happen to someone similar to them. In almost all cases people believed the bad thing was more likely to happen to others and less likely to happen to them.
But by the law of probabilities, this can’t be true. Not everyone can be less likely to experience a particular bad outcome. We can’t all be top quartile.
Weinstein identified four cognitive factors contributing to unrealistic optimism.
1. Lack of personal experience with the problem/bad thing
2. Belief that if the problem hasn’t yet appeared it will never appear in the future
3. Belief that the problem is uncommon
4. Belief that the problem is preventable by individual action
Now we can start to see why our man on the beach didn’t move.
His brain almost certainly wasn’t coding for the situation unfolding in front of him.
He was on a beautiful beach, he’d just had a nice breakfast, was probably thinking about wandering up to the bar for a beer and a Pad Thai a bit later.
The fact that he was about to be consumed by a thing that only happens in movies would never have crossed his mind. He was unrealistically optimistic.
His was an optimism sculpted by context, assumption and experience. Never before had he been to Thailand and while relaxing on the beach died in a tsunami. Do tsunamis even exist? If they do, they are very uncommon.
Tsunamis are, of course, very uncommon. But sometimes they do actually happen.
This freeze response is well-documented in other disasters. The passengers whose plane crashed on the runway and stayed strapped into their seats, reassuring each other everything would be fine before they burned to death. The workers in the south tower who returned calmly to their offices on September 11th and watched with their own eyes as flames poured from the huge gaping hole punched in the building across from them.
Everything about these situations should have screamed run. But in their novelty and sudden out-of-context appearance, some people found it impossible to readjust their ideas about the future. Cognitively, they found it easier to fall back on an old mental model of the world and their experience of that world than adjust the model in the face of immediate, observable realities.
A novel from more than 250 years ago suggests that the propensity for people and cultures to be consumed by unrealistic optimism is not new. That it might be an enlightenment thing.
In his 1759 novel Candide, Voltaire satirises the idea put forward 40 years earlier by the enlightenment philosopher Gottfried Leibniz that the existing world is the best that God could have created. “The best of all possible worlds,” in the famous line. Voltaire, a man opposed to organised religion, slavery and rule by royalty, had some thoughts about that.
In the novel, professor Pangloss, a philosopher, and his naïve student, Candide, experience a series of catastrophes, from earthquakes to shipwrecks. Each time, Pangloss assures Candide that despite the horror, this is certainly the best of all possible worlds. In the face of horror after horror, Voltaire satirises the idea of optimism as the go-to response.
The fact that Voltaire wrote about this 250 years ago suggests this really might be a feature, not a bug, of the human experience.
And a 2011 update to Weinstein’s experiment seems to back this up.
This time, researchers twice asked people to rate their likelihood of eighty disturbing things happening to them. On their first go, the subjects weren’t told how often statistically these events happened in the real world. The second time, they were. The researchers found that on both occasions people underestimated the chance of the bad thing happening to them, and over-estimated the likelihood of a more favourable outcome. In other words, even knowing how likely they were to experience a negative event didn’t make people any more likely to believe it would happen to them personally.
Unlike in Weinstein’s experiment, subjects were hooked up to an MRI, giving us a more detailed understanding of what was going on in the brain. And it turns out we may be programmed for optimism.
The researchers found that those who wrongly assessed their risk levels experienced “diminishing coding in a region in the frontal cortex.” They concluded that “the human propensity toward optimism is facilitated by the brain's failure to code errors in estimation when those call for pessimistic updates. This failure results in selective updating, which supports unrealistic optimism that is resistant to change.”
We are wired to ignore the apocalypse.
But the experiment also revealed something else. It revealed that some people did code for errors in estimation. One group of people did have the ability to over-ride innate optimism and accurately calculate risk - the clinically depressed.
At this point you might feel seen.
If you fret about a world on fire, if you’re still cautious about covid, there’s a good chance that you have always have been suspicious of overt optimists.
Maybe you view a culture pathologically orientated to good vibes only with curiosity. Even disdain.
You are likely to see sadness not as something to conquer, but as a tether to reality.
You might feel that while sadness is not exactly your friend, you don’t see it as your enemy.
You probably feel it provides you some survival advantages. That it can motivate, not immobilise.
Well, science says you’re right.
(Research has also found that adults with autism are also less susceptible to unrealistic optimism. The ability to more accurately assess risk seems to be something of a neurodivergent trait).
And you’re not alone.
We should remember that many people did run from the wave. Many did flee the towers. Many people were able to pessimistically update their thinking and take appropriate action.
But a world on fire swirling in a novel virus is an experience on a different scale.
And rather than urge people to run from the flames or avoid the virus, we are faced with a system that is actively directing us to unrealistic optimism.
“The pandemic is over, we’re making progress on climate change.”
We are being prevented from accurately assessing risk by elites who are gaming a cognitive glitch to keep business-as-usual on the tracks.
We can see the wave approaching, we’re trying to raise the alarm.
We want to explain that if we appear sad sometimes, it’s because we’re accurately coding for risk.
We want to share what we know.
But the Panglossians won’t listen. They think they’ll surf the wave.
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