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A mind for optimism

Reality checks affect judgment more when prospects are rosier, study indicates

7:16pm, October 13, 2011

Brains are unabashedly optimistic, lapping up good news and virtually ignoring the bad, scientists report online October 9 in Nature Neuroscience. The findings could help explain why people overestimate their life span, underestimate their chances of getting a divorce, and scoff at the thought of bankruptcy.

The rosy results touch on a deep, systematic feature of human cognition that helps guide everyday behavior, says computational neuroscientist Read Montague of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, who was not involved in the research. “This is an excellent paper,” he says.

In the study, Tali Sharot of University College London and colleagues examined what happens when reality doesn’t align with expectations. The team documented people’s predictions for 80 unpleasant events, including getting a cancer diagnosis, losing data through a computer crash, missing a flight or having a limb amputated.

While in a functional MRI brain scan

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