Optimism is not a fancy word for ignorance

by Rebecca A. Watson on October 13, 2011

in life, optimism

Since my media fast, I’ve paid less attention to the news and media in general, but that doesn’t mean I’ve completely shut down. I mean, c’mon, I’m an information junkie. I need to get my fix.

Yesterday I saw the headline (and Facebook post) for this article that asked “Are Optimists Dumber?” and I decided not to read it. I told myself I didn’t really care.

After all, I was 13th in what was arguably one of the most gifted group of students our high school had ever seen. My GPA in both high school and college was well over average, and I scored insanely high on the suggested standardized tests. I know I’m “smart.”

rebecca twins game

Plus I wear glasses and can keep score at a baseball game. Of course I'm intelligent!

But curiosity (and perhaps a little ego) got the better of me and I read the article. And I read another from BBC News about the same study, just to get a more rounded perspective.

Turns out the study doesn’t say anything about optimists being stupid. That was pure editorializing on the part of The Daily Beast. (Sidenote: Question marks in headlines: I think Jon Stewart puts it best.)

What the study talks about is how optimists tend to misjudge their odds of something negative happening to them, mostly because the frontal lobe of their brains choose to ignore negative evidence.

So an optimists who smokes will be less likely to believe they’ll die of cancer and an optimist who marries will be less likely to think they’ll get divorced. They think this way even though the odds say otherwise because literally their brains reject that negative information.

smoking wedding

Basically: Ignorance is bliss.

While not scientifically accurate, I’ll go on record as an optimist who has experienced both and say that’s not really how my optimism works.

As a smoker, I was painfully aware of the risks associated with my habit. But I happened to be addicted. Ask any smoker how many times they have tried to quit. I think this attempt for me was number 12 or 13 (or 22 or 23).

When I smoked, I knew the odds of having health problems were pretty high. And getting married is, in itself, an optimistic thing to do. The odds of getting divorced seem to be rising all the time. But that’s all they are: odds.

Someone’s going to get divorced and someone’s going to get emphysema. But not everyone. And why can’t I be part of that “not everyone”?

It’s the same mentality that’s keeping me going in running my own business. Yes, I realize that 50 percent of small businesses last less than 5 years, but why can’t I be one of those other 50 percent?

I’m aware of the risks in life. My brain accepts that information but sees that that is all it is: information. What you do with that information is what really matters.

I can’t speak for everyone, but I don’t wanna end my life and say, “Well, I played it safe and made it this far. Now what?” Whether that makes me stupid is someone else’s opinion. And someone great who just passed on put it really nicely:

steve jobs inspirational quote don't waste your life

So for all you optimists out there, keep on keepin’ on. We tend to live longer and have fewer mental health problems,  among many other things. And while it’s not perfect (what is really?), it’s a lot more fun than spending life expecting the worst.

Are you an optimist? How does your brain deal with negative information? What about the pessimists out there? Do you think optimists are stupid, naive, or do you wish you were an optimist?


{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Making it up as I go... October 14, 2011 at 10:21 am

I now what they’re talking about.
I’ve managed to find a happy medium of realism and optimism which is rather depressing ;P


Ms. Becca October 14, 2011 at 11:30 am

Hee hee, I know right? That realism sorta takes the sparkle off of our bright-eyed optimism 😉


DissidentRage October 16, 2012 at 1:24 pm

What about optimists who believe that something can happen the way they want, even if it can’t, then hold others responsible for falling short of their unrealistic expectations?


Ms. Becca October 16, 2012 at 8:13 pm

Excellent point DissidentRage. I’ve been one of those optimists, sadly enough. But I think that has less to do with the negative habits of a person than their optimistic qualities.

Optimists (nay, anyone really) are not perfect. And while I’m all for the power of positive thinking, someone who blames others when their optimistic scheme didn’t work out isn’t playing the role of the optimist. They are blaming, shifting responsibility, which is a narcissistic act.

I’ve been there. My marriage didn’t work out and for years I blamed it on my ex. While he should shoulder some of the responsibility, it took a long time for me to see that I hadn’t made it easy for my optimistic act to work out.

I guess what I’m saying is that we’re all human, and optimist or no, we make mistakes and hurt other people. The beauty of all of this (and this is some silver-lining type stuff) is that we all have the ability to see what we’ve done wrong and hopefully correct it the next time.

Case in point, I got married again and this time, I know I’ve got to work hard to make sure I’m growing and paying attention to the man I love in order for it to work. It’s not just wishful thinking that makes life and outcomes beautiful and positive, it’s the action and intention behind it.


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