Why Mediations fail? Optimism Bias – our inability to process the negative
Below is part of an article written by:
Tali Sharot, Christoph W Korn and Raymond J Dolan
have researched about how our brains process what we don’t wish to hear less than they process what we do want to hear. This optimism bias has been blamed for the financial crash in 2008 and a number of other things as well as the inability of some people in mediation to face what they are hearing and be realistic about their options.
As mediators we sometimes have a hard time facilitating people in conflict to be able to think about the challenges they need to ride past in order to resolve their dispute. It has alerted us to the need to repeat the risk assessments several times with parties and keep on with our challenging and difficult questioning. However the scientific research below may highlight that it is the way our brains choose to process what we like more than what we don’t that may cause this inability to be rational in mediation.
Here is the beginning and end of the article with the credit to Nature for publishing at the end:
“Unrealistic optimism is a pervasive human trait influencing domains ranging from personal relationships to politics and finance. How people maintain unrealistic optimism, despite frequently encountering information that challenges those biased beliefs, is unknown. Here, we provide an explanation. Specifically, we show a striking asymmetry, whereby people updated their beliefs more in response to information that was better than expected compared to information that was worse. This selectivity was mediated by a relative failure to code for errors that should reduce optimism. Distinct regions of the prefrontal cortex tracked estimation errors when those called for positive update, both in highly optimistic and low optimistic individuals. However, highly optimistic individuals exhibited reduced tracking of estimation errors that called for negative update within right inferior prefrontal gyrus. These findings show that optimism is tied to a selective update failure, and diminished neural coding, of undesirable information regarding the future.
Our findings offer a mechanistic account of how unrealistic optimism persists in the face of challenging information. We showed that optimism was related to diminished coding of undesirable information about the future, in a region of the frontal cortex (right IFG) identified as sensitive to negative estimation errors. Participants scoring high on trait optimism were worse at tracking undesirable errors in this region, relative to those who scored low. In contrast, tracking of desirable information in regions processing desirable estimation errors (MFC/SFG, left IFG and cerebellum) did not differ between high and low optimists.
Reduced BOLD tracking of undesirable errors in right IFG predicted the extent to which participants selectively updated their beliefs using information that enforced optimism, while (relatively) dismissing information that contradicted it. Importantly, this effect was not explained by how well participants recalled the information presented to them. Neither did it reflect specific characteristics of the adverse events (e.g. familiarity, negativity, arousal, past experience, how rare or common the event is). Thus, unlike predictions from learning theory, where both positive and negative information are given equal weight, we showed a valence-dependent asymmetry in how estimation errors impacted on beliefs about one’s personal future.
Interestingly, our fMRI data revealed that error evoked activity differed in response to desirable and undesirable information regarding possible future outcomes. Segregated regions encoded error-related-activity in response to new information that called for optimistic or pessimistic adjustments. While the left IFG, left and right MFC/SFG and right cerebellum tracked desirable errors, the right IFG tracked undesirable errors. It is worth noting that previous studies have suggested hemispheric asymmetry in processing positive and negative information consistent with that found here in the IFG 24. Furthermore, while BOLD signal in regions tracking positive estimation errors increased when the average probability was better than the participant’s estimate, in regions tracking negative estimation errors it decreased when the average probability was worse than expected. In other words, activity increased for a better than expected outcome and dipped for a worse than expected outcome – a pattern resembling that of neurons signalling prediction errors.
All regions identified in this study as coding estimation errors have previously been shown to track errors in different contexts, including errors due to incorrect responses, errors in expectations in the absence of action, reversal errors and prediction errors that code differences between expectations and outcomes. Note that those errors emerge when outcomes are experienced, and capture differences in expected and real magnitudes. Here, estimation errors captured the difference between participants’ predictions of the likelihood of a possible future outcome and information about the actual probability of experiencing these outcomes. This information was presented in an explicit form that engaged higher cognitive functions, and this is likely to explain the preferential engagement of cortical regions. Our findings suggest that these error signals are subject to motivational modulation. Specifically, a motivation to adopt the most rewarding (or least aversive) perspective on future outcomes is likely to modulate the impact of an error signal that subsequently influences update. As information regarding hypothetical outcomes is less constrained than actual experiences, the impact of such information may be more easily altered by motivation. It is possible that reduced coding of negative errors is restricted to such cases, and we do not know whether it will generalise to instances where outcomes are in fact experienced.
We previously described a positivity bias in the imagination of future life events, where participants imagined positive future events as closer in time and more vivid than negative events – a bias mediated by activity in rostral anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and amygdala. Whereas participants in our previous study showed an optimistic bias in unconstrained imagination, here we identified an optimistic learning bias when participants’ beliefs were challenged by new information. These results provide a powerful explanatory framework for how optimistic biases are maintained.
Underestimating susceptibility to negative events can serve an adaptive function by enhancing explorative behaviour and reducing stress and anxiety associated with negative expectations. This is consistent with the observation that mild depression is related to a more accurate estimation of future outcomes, and severe depression to pessimistic expectations. However, any advantage arising out of unrealistic optimism is likely to come at a cost. For example, an unrealistic assessment of financial risk is widely seen as contributing factor to the 2008 global economic collapse. The current study suggests that this human propensity towards optimism is facilitated by the brain’s failure to code errors in estimation when those call for negative updates. This failure results in selective updating, which supports unrealistic optimism that is resistant to change. Dismissing undesirable errors in estimation renders us peculiarly susceptible to view the future through rose coloured glasses.”
This forms only the introductory paragraph and the discussion part of a longer article published by Nature, see: