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Monday, March 09, 2009


on optimism

yves smith in commenting on her reading of nassim taleb's "the black swan":

But second, and perhaps as important, people do not want to see the world as subject to chance to the degree that Taleb says it is. This is hugely unsettling if you really do come to terms with the implications of his argument. We like to believe we have some measure of control over our lives. And research has shown that people do pretty consistently overestimate their degree of control and influence (for instance, most people will exaggerate their contribution to the success of a project, not as a matter of PR, although that may be true too, but their private assessment). Most people (ironically those deemed psychologically healthy) have an optimistic bias and generally assign too high odds of things working out well (the mildly depressed make more accurate assessments. I have often wondered which way the causality runs: do they make better assessments BECAUSE their unhappy state strips away the rose-colored filter, or are they mildly depressed because they keep giving more realistic assessments, which makes them a drag to be around, and they are depressed because they encounter social rejection?). So if you embrace Taleb, you'd have to accept the disorienting fact that the world really is a pretty untractable place, that success had more to do with luck than application (although Taleb stresses the importance of working at being lucky, that is, accepting the opportunity to meet new people and make the most of chance encounters).

smith's observation is absolutely true -- an update on the science surrounding optimism ran in last week's economist -- though the causality is subtly different.

It has been known for a long time that optimists see the world selectively, mentally processing positive things while ignoring negative ones, and that this outlook helps determine their health and well-being. In recent years, it has also become clear that carriers of a particular version of a particular gene are at higher risk than others of depression and attempted suicide when they face traumatic events. The gene in question lies in a region of the genome that promotes the activity of a second gene, which encodes a protein called the serotonin transporter. ...

It has looked increasingly likely, therefore, that genes — particularly those connected with serotonin — have a role to play in shaping a person’s outlook. So Elaine Fox and her colleagues at the University of Essex, in Britain, wondered whether genes play a part in the selective attention to positive or negative material, with consequent effects on outlook. ...

In a paper just published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B they report that, sure enough, gene-related variation caused a bias in attention towards positive and negative material. Some people had two “long” versions of the promoter gene (one inherited from each parent), a combination that reduces the amount of serotonin in the junctions between nerve cells. These individuals were biased towards positive images and away from negative ones. By contrast, those who had either a long and a short version of the gene, or two short versions (and thus, presumably, more serotonin in the junctions), did not have such protective biases. In other words, the optimists really did see the world differently.

Rose-tinted spectacles may be good for one’s health, as these results fit in with wider ideas about how a tendency to look on the bright side of life is part of being resilient to stress. Those with short variants of this gene are expected to have an increased susceptibility to mood disorders following such stress. It is not all good news, though, for optimists. Because these results suggest that a person’s attitude to life is inherited, they serve as a stark warning to all buoyant optimists that trying to cheer the rest of the world up with nothing more than a smile and an effortlessly sunny disposition is doomed to failure.

that is, genetic makeup endows a disposition to selectively distort reality in order to present a falsely optimistic picture which, though fostering emotional resiliency under duress, is indeed distorted and false.

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In some circles, it is considered a gift to be able to distort reality. In others, it's madness. So make sure you're traveling in the corresponding circle, or your social reputation will suffer.

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