Culture At Large

How humanity's optimism bias is different than Christian hope

Jason E. Summers

The structure of our brains is responsible for our tendency to imagine rosy futures for ourselves in which things work out much better for us than others, reports a recent Time cover story. Author, neuroscientist Tali Sharot, says this means we are “hardwired for hope.” But what resemblance does this optimistic bias have to the hope of the gospel?

Studies consistently find that people tend to believe their futures will be better than the present and that they will fare better in the future than others will, a fundamentally egotistical tendency psychology has termed the “optimistic bias.” Recent imaging studies in cognitive neuroscience reveal that optimistic bias arises through the interaction of structures in the brain that monitor and regulate emotion with structures responsible for remembering the past and imagining the future. Optimism is effectively hardwired into how our brains work, making our optimistic beliefs remarkably robust when confronted with contrary evidence.

This should come as no surprise. We know that humankind has always been an optimistic species. The biblical narrative recounts our forefather and mother taking the incredible risk of disobeying God's express command under the logic that, somehow, it did not apply to them (Genesis 3:1-24). True to this anthropology, the archeological record tells the story of our early-human ancestors leaving the relative comfort of Africa in a wave of emigration to the unknown. Our optimism remains a double-edged sword. It predisposes us to egotistical overconfidence and foolish risks but it enables our greatest and noblest achievements.

But if optimism entails risk, why is it our predominant disposition? Why not a cool rationalism that would lead us to hedge our bets and pick our battles? Sharot argues that optimism conveys a survival advantage and was therefore favored by evolution. In particular, she adopts the argument put forward by Ajit Varki in a letter to Nature. Because full self-awareness and intersubjectivity brings, together with a host of survival advantages, knowledge of our own eventual death, Varki suggests that those neural capabilities had to develop simultaneously with neural mechanisms for denying mortality.

Though evolutionary psychology is notoriously prone to overstatement, this explanation has a coherence with the biblical account of human nature. Becoming like God in knowing good and evil and truly perceiving our human condition (nakedness) brings death. Only through our temporary denial of death and egotistical denial of what we knew to be true, could we take on that knowledge. While Varki's insight is fundamentally psychoanalytical - seeing denial and repression as the evolutionary solution to the existential problem of death - we know this is not sufficient.

In "Theology of Hope," Jürgen Moltmann made the crucial distinction between optimism and hope. As his student Miroslav Volfexplains, optimism is “an unfolding of what is already there,” an imagining of a positive future based on what is latent in the past and present. Hope, in contrast, is “a gift of something new,” a positive future made possible only through the love of God “stretching itself into the future of the beloved object.”

Sharot believes remembering the past and imagining the future rely on the same structures within the brain. Our bias toward positive outcomes arises from the influence of emotion in the processes by which information is stored and used to simulate an imagined future event. It is, in Volf's words, a positive “unfolding of what is already there.” But, while our own optimistic denial of death is sufficient for us to take and eat the fruit, once outside of the garden, it can neither sustain us nor ultimately address the problem of death. Our brains enable us to see our condition as it truly is, naked. Our hope is the gift of God in which “the impossible becomes not just possible, but real,” in which death is not denied, but overcome.

Topics: Culture At Large, Science & Technology, Science, Theology & The Church, Faith, Theology