2016 was an ‘interesting’ year, perhaps interesting as in the Chinese curse, and there was a lot of doom and gloom around.
And yet the new year begins and maybe there are more grounds for optimism than we imagine.
In actual fact, the world is far better than ever before. There are less wars, there is less violent crime, there is less global poverty, there is greater wealth and comfort and there is better health and greater longevity than ever before.
Of course, progress has not finished its journey, we still have a long way to go; nor is it linear, we may be going through a downward blip; nor still is it guaranteed, we still have to work hard to ensure it continues in the direction we wish.
But there is a danger in focussing on the negatives we forget the bigger story that the world is improving. Listen to Jan Grzebski, a modern day Rip Van Winkle, who fell into a coma in 1988, in Poland before the collapse of Communism, and didn’t wake again until 2007: he said he saw so much luxury compared to 1988 yet all he heard was people complaining.
So why is this and what should we do about it?
We are wired to be pessimistic
We focus on negativity because our brain is wired to do so.
• The amygdala uses approximately two thirds of its neurons to detect negative experiences
• We process negative data faster and more thoroughly than positive data
• Babies will spot an angry face in a crowd far quicker than a happy one; they will always spot the angry one first, no matter how many happy ones in the picture.
• Approximately 2/3 of emotional words in the English language are negative compared to 1/3 positive. There are similar findings in nearly all languages.
And, in evolutionary terms, this has been a good thing, it helped us survive or, better, avoid life-threatening situations.
The problem is that it isn’t necessary a truthful reflection of reality, let alone a pleasant way to live. There is good news, though.
We are wired to be optimistic
We also have a lot of wiring to be optimistic, scientists have identified an optimism bias. We tend to think bad things happen in life, but not to us.
• The chances of a new business surviving 5 years (in the U.S.) is 35% but pretty much everyone thinks they will be in that minority.
• 2 out of every 5 marriages fail but no one at the altar thinks their’s will.
• Even divorce lawyers, who should know better, have a similar misplaced confidence in the durability of their own love.
• 64% of Americans think they will go to heaven when they die, 0.5% think they will go to hell (admittedly, no one has done the follow up studies to check the accuracy of these beliefs).
We’re all better than average!
Moreover, 93% of drivers think they are better than average – now this is statistically impossible! Not just that – we also all think we’re better at sex, we’re more honest, we’re even more modest than everyone else!
And in my field, negotiation, we also all think we’re fairer and more reasonable than other people: studies have shown we think our figures are more accurate, our reasoning better, our behaviour more flexible and co-operative and our viewpoint more fair and realistic than the other person.
The point is both sides fervently believe this and both sides simply cannot be right. So there is a lesson here: we need to be cautious about our judgements.
Put in the checks and balances
So how should we think, given neither bias is an accurate reflection of the truth?
Well, being optimistic is highly correlated with happiness, confidence and physical health. So that has to be a good thing.
But we also need to be aware that it is a bias and put in any checks and balances necessary. Double-check your figures and reason from different angles; get a second opinion (but not from your best friend who always agrees with you, but from that other person, the one who always disagrees with you); be optimistic but have a plan B just in case
Another great trick is to conduct a pre-mortem. Before the project, imagine it was to fail; then ask yourself, what was it that led to the failure? Now you are better placed to pre-empt such a scenario. Paradoxically, a moment’s pessimism will make the venture more likely to succeed.
It is the belt and braces approach that just may prove safer in the long run.
And in a negotiation?
The same principles apply to a negotiation. It is a good strategy to set your goals high – you never know you just may reach them. And even if not, you may still end up with more than you had considered possible otherwise. When Thomas Edison took his first major invention, the stock ticker, to Wall St he was hoping for $5,000 but would have accepted $3,500. They offered $45,000.
So be ambitious and optimistic.
And be ambitious and optimistic for your counterparty, too. Really? Shouldn’t you be trying to squeeze them as much as you can?
Well, let’s think about it. If you are setting your goals high, you are probably going to need help to get there, in fact you’ll probably need help from your counterparty. So how are you going to get them to help you? Well, a good place to start is by helping them. Be ambitious and optimistic for them, help them achieve that and they will be your number one fan and will help you get things you never thought possible.
And in a dispute, it is worth considering you may not be on the side of the angels as much as you think! And that outrageous behaviour the other person is doing? Maybe, from their point of view, it really isn’t outrageous at all. So get second opinions, develop Plan B’s, do a pre-mortem.
To conclude, optimism is good but we need to counter for the bias. All of these methods just help to take yourself outside of yourself and reach a more considered, unbiased viewpoint which can only help in your judgements.
The basis of wisdom
Wisdom = optimism + awareness.
I just made that up but I sense there is some kind of truth in it. Move through life with optimism and awareness and you will do well.
I’m 100% sure of it!