Sunday, July 20, 2014

Pathological #optimism?

A recent pop-science article in the NYT says “debate continues on hazards of electromagnetic waves.” It points out that the first disturbing findings date back half a century, and it has been more recently established that kids living near high-voltage power lines have measurably higher rates of leukemia. There have also been some sporadic, potentially disturbing finding regarding cell phones and other equipment. So why hasn’t this become a burning public health concern? I would guess it’s the same reason which recently led a top military commander to testify to a US senate committee that things in Afghanistan were really, truly looking up, despite some apparent evidence to the contrary – chronic optimism, or what some psychologists call “positivity bias.” This is the mindset which can lead you to conquer the Aztec empire with a company of desperados, land a few men on the moon, and win some hot and a cold war. I would guess it can also lead you into Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, and let you maintain confidence in a virtualized financial matrix (or, dare I say, fly a passenger airliner over a war zone).

In fact, there is some research indicating that individuals with a “negativity bias” (which probably has some genetic/epigenetic basis) have a more accurate assessment of their own traits and abilities, and of the overall context in which they operate. In the real world, though, these are predispositions more common in Japan than in Denmark (the most upbeat country according to most surveys) – and it is Japan that has been in the economic doldrums for a long, long time now (and a Japanese company did show misplaced optimism in managing the Fukushima power plant and organizing the post-disaster efforts there). So who knows, perhaps we are destined to make the mistakes we are predisposed to make, and there is some truth in the fatalistic wisdom typical of most traditional cultures. But such a conclusion would probably betray an overly strong “negativity bias” in my own thinking (the default inclination among the pre-Millennial generations in my native Bulgaria – which The Economist crowned a few years ago the unhappiest place on Earth, and which hasn’t really benefited from habitually seeing the glass half-empty). So we are back to square one…