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Is optimism rational?

Optimism is an attitude where a person believes things will generally turn out well, often with the assumption that the mindset is self-fulfilling. In contrast, realists (often viewed by optimists as pessimists) tend to believe that the optimists' wishful thinking leads to broken expectations and bad consequences.

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Experts and Influencers

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Experts In Science

Robin Hanson    Economics Professor
Mostly Agree
We are naturally happy when times are good and sad when times are bad. Since we prefer to associate with folks having good times, we prefer associates who act happy. So we tend to be biased to act happier than our hidden info about our circumstances justifies. Of course when things go really bad we may switched to acting depressed, to realistically assess our prospects, and to perhaps induce more assistance.
21 Nov 2009    Source

Sub-Arguments Of This Expert:
Is self-deception a fault?
   Mostly Agree

Experts In Media

Oprah Winfrey    Talk Show Host
Create the highest, grandest vision possible for your life because you become what you believe.
30 May 1997    Source

Conan O' Brien    Comedian, Talk Show Host
All I ask of you, especially young people, is one thing. Please don't be cynical. I hate cynicism - it's my least favorite quality and it doesn't lead anywhere. Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard and you're kind, amazing things will happen. I'm telling you, amazing things will happen.
22 Jan 2010    Source

Experts In Politics

Winston Churchill    Former Prime Minister of U.K.
For myself I am an optimist - it does not seem to be much use being anything else.
09 Nov 1954    Source

Experts In Sport

Roger Federer    World #1 Tennis Player
That was a tough moment because matches have been lost this way. I was like "you know what I didn't lose a set yet". ... I'm always positive, you know. I always try to see the positive side even though that could have cost me the match and the tournament.
31 Jan 2010    Source

Experts In Science

Joseph Forgas    Psychology Professor
Mostly Disagree
Whereas positive mood seems to promote creativity, flexibility, cooperation and reliance on mental shortcuts, negative moods trigger more attentive, careful thinking, paying greater attention to the external world.
01 Nov 2009    Source

Michael Shermer    Scientist, Skeptic, Author
I am, by nature, an optimist. ... My optimism, however, has not always served me well. Twice I have been hit by cars [while cycling] that were entirely the result of my blissful attitude that the street corners I had successfully negotiated hundreds of times before would not suddenly materialize an automobile in my path. ...feelings — both positive and negative — too often trump reason. In the end, reality must take precedence over fantasy, regardless of how it makes us feel.
18 Dec 2009    Source

Experts In Business

Susan Webber    Business Advisor
Mostly Disagree
...looking on the bright side keeps us from thinking critically. [Unfortunately] detached, rigorous thinking simply doesn’t fit any of our [overly optimistic] cultural models. ... While the elixir of optimism may help us get through the day, it is toxic to corporations when taken in excess.
01 Jan 2008    Source

Experts In Feminism

Barbara Ehrenreich    Journalist, Author
Mostly Disagree
The promotion of positive thinking has become a minor industry in its own right, producing an endless flow of books, DVDs, and other products; providing employment for tens of thousands of “life coaches,” “executive coaches,” and motivational speakers, as well as for the growing cadre of professional psychologists who seek to train them. ... [We need to] recover from the mass delusion that is positive thinking.
01 Oct 2009    Source

Experts In Entertainment

Sandra Bullock    Actress
I used to be an optimist, but now I know that nothing is going to turn out as I expect — although often it is better.
14 Mar 2010    Source


Add Your TakeOnIt (click to expand, no login required)
0 Points      Nashhinton      23 Jan 2013      Stance on Question: Mostly Agree
Optimism increases mental health and decreases anxiety. In this sense, it can augment rational thinking especially if someone is taking a test during class. However in certain scenarios, "optimism bias", as it is so called, can deceive someone to see life through rose colored glasses or to analyze possible events with sheer delusional anticipation.

1 Point      TZX      16 Feb 2011      Stance on Question: Mostly Disagree
Optimism is dangerous. Pessimism is dangerous. Anything other than pure, unadulterated realism is a dangerous distortion of reality.

0 Points      blacktrance      11 Feb 2011      Stance on Question: Neutral
It depends on who you are. Mostly, realism is the best.

1 Point      the27th      26 May 2010      Stance on Question: Neutral
I once saw the argument that depression is tied to higher cognitive function, better critical thinking, etc. A little like Forgas' theory. It's astounding to me, because my personal experience tells me that depression produces the inability to think clearly at all. Despair is a fog.

The thing is, humans have optimistic biases -- we tend to be overconfident in our assessments and our self-evaluations. Pessimism acts in the opposite direction, so it can appear to make people more rational, but that's a canceling effect. Pessimism is just a bias of its own, and it's a particularly nasty one when it's so extreme that it doesn't seem worth while to do anything. You need a certain degree of optimism to make any plans or actions at all.

0 Points      Benja      27 May 2010      General Comment
I've thought about the idea that we have many biases that pull us in different directions, and that our behavior is a function of the aggregate of all of them. If so, then perhaps overcoming a particular bias could have a net negative effect of upsetting that balance (even if overcoming that bias helped us perform better in some domains). I'd be curious if anyone has pointers to research on that. One of my favorite posts on Less Wrong here alluded to this idea, with some research that defended motivated cognition and confirmation bias.

0 Points      OmnipotentRabbit      10 Apr 2010      Stance on Question: Neutral
It is, of course. But blind optimism is not justifiable, one must have a dose of realism while still preserving a good outlook on life. A balance between cynicism and optimism is what is required. Therefore both are rational.

0 Points      JGWeissman      27 Mar 2010      Stance on Question: Disagree
That which can be done as a reaction to false beliefs, which turns out to be a good thing to do, can be done as a reaction to true beliefs, because it is a good thing to do.