As part of the project we guest-edited a special issue of Consciousness and Cognition  on Unrealistic Optimism - its Nature, Causes and Effects

Here you find a list of journal articles and book chapters:

1. Lisa Bortolotti, Ema Sullivan-Bissett, Rachel Gunn (2016). What makes a belief delusional? In I Mac Carthy, K Sellevold and O Smith (eds.) Cognitive Confusions: Dreams, Delusions and Illusions in Early Modern Culture. Oxford: Legenda.

In philosophy, psychiatry, and cognitive science, definitions of clinical delusions are not based on the mechanisms responsible for the formation of delusions. Some of the defining features of delusions are epistemic and focus on whether delusions are true, justified, or rational, as in the definition of delusions as fixed beliefs that are badly supported by evidence). Other defining features of delusions are psychological and they focus on whether delusions are harmful, as in the definition of delusions as beliefs that disrupt good functioning. Even if the epistemic features go some way towards capturing what otherwise different instances of clinical delusions have in common, they do not succeed in distinguishing delusions as a clinical phenomenon from everyday irrational beliefs. Focusing on the psychological features is a more promising way to mark the difference between clinical and non-clinical irrational beliefs, but there is wide variability in the extent to which delusions are psychologically harmful, and some everyday irrational beliefs can affect functioning in similarly negative ways. In this chapter we consider three types of belief that share similar epistemic features and exhibit variation with respect to how psychologically harmful they are: (1) delusions of thought insertion, (2) alien abduction beliefs, and (3) self-enhancing beliefs. In the light of the similarities and differences between these cases, we highlight the difficulty in providing an answer to what makes an irrational belief delusional.

2. Bojana Kuzmanovic, Anneli Jefferson, Kai Vogeley (2016). The role of the neural reward circuitry in self-referential optimistic belief updates. Neuroimage, 133, 151–162. DOI 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2016.02.014.

People are motivated to adopt the most favorable beliefs about their future because positive beliefs are experienced as rewarding. However, it is so far inconclusive whether brain regions known to represent reward values are involved in the generation of optimistically biased belief updates. To address this question, we investigated neural correlates of belief updates that result in relatively better future outlooks, and therefore imply a positive subjective value of the judgment outcome. Participants estimated the probability of experiencing different adverse future events. After being provided with population base rates of these events, they had the opportunity to update their initial estimates. Participants made judgments concerning themselves or a similar other, and were confronted with desirable or undesirable base rates (i.e., lower or higher than their initial estimates). Belief updates were smaller following undesirable than desirable information, and this optimism bias was stronger for judgments regarding oneself than others. During updating, the positive value of self-related updates was reflected by neural activity in the subgenual ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) that increased both with increasing sizes of favorable updates, and with decreasing sizes of unfavorable updates. During the processing of self-related undesirable base rates, increasing activity in a network including the dorsomedial PFC, hippocampus, thalamus and ventral striatum predicted decreasing update sizes. Thus, key regions of the neural reward circuitry contributed to the generation of optimistically biased self-referential belief updates. While the vmPFC tracked subjective values of belief updates, a network including the ventral striatum was involved in neglecting information calling for unfavorable updates.

3. Lisa Bortolotti and Anneli Jefferson (2016). Moral Preferences. Society, 53 (3), 269-272. DOI 10.1007/s12115-016-0027-3.

In this brief response to Etzioni’s paper we argue that satisfying one’s preferences and seeking to live up to one’s moral standards are not incompatible ways of living one’s life, and that choosing to act morally need not involve self-sacrifice.

4. Anneli Jefferson, Lisa Bortolotti and Bojana Kuzmanovic (2016). What is unrealistic optimism? Consciousness & Cognition. DOI 10.1016/j.concog.2016.10.005.

Here we consider the nature of unrealistic optimism and other related positive illusions. We are interested in whether cognitive states that are unrealistically optimistic are belief states, whether they are false, and whether they are epistemically irrational. We also ask to what extent unrealistically optimistic cognitive states are fixed. Based on the classic and recent empirical literature on unrealistic optimism, we offer some preliminary answers to these questions, thereby laying the foundations for answering further questions about unrealistic optimism, such as whether it has biological, psychological, or epistemic benefits.

5. Anneli Jefferson (2017). Born to be Biased? Unrealistic Optimism and Error Management Theory. Philosophical Psychology 30 (8) 1159 - 1175

When individuals display cognitive biases, they are prone to developing systematically false beliefs. Evolutionary psychologists have argued that rather than being a flaw in human cognition, biases may actually be design features. In my paper, I assess the claim that unrealistic optimism is such a design feature because it is a form of error management. Proponents of this theory say that when individuals make decisions under uncertainty, it can be advantageous to err on the side of overconfidence if the potential gains through success are high and the costs of failure are low. I argue that there are a number of conceptual problems in matching the theory with the existing data. I also show that there is empirical evidence against the error management hypothesis.

6. Lisa Bortolotti (forthcoming). Optimism, Agency, and Success. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice.

Does optimism lead to success? Friends of optimism argue that positive beliefs about ourselves and our future contribute to fitness and mental health, and are correlated with good functioning, productivity, resilience, and pro-social behaviour. Sceptics, instead, claim that when we are optimistic we fail to react constructively to negative feedback, and put ourselves at risk because we underestimate threats. Thus, it is controversial whether optimistic beliefs are conducive to success, intended as the fulfilment of our goals in a given domain. According to the traditional view, optimistic beliefs lead to success when they do not involve any distortion of reality, and according to the trade-off view, they lead to success when they involve a distortion of reality, but a small one. Based on the literature about positive illusions in the perception of romantic partners and in the assessment of future health prospects, I suggest that optimistic beliefs lead to goal attainment when they support agency by contributing to the sense that we are competent and efficacious agents and that our goals are both desirable and attainable.