Optimism and its Antidote

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by David Scott, Associate Professor, Voice


We often think of optimism as being a desirable state. But when does optimism help us, and when does it hurt? I’ve been reading Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking Fast and Slow.” It's a great book with lots of behind-the-curtain insight about our feeble human minds.


Here’s what he has to say about optimists:

Optimists are normally cheerful and happy, and therefore popular; they are resilient in adapting to failures and hardships, their chances of clinical depression are reduced, their immune system is stronger, they take better care of their health, they feel healthier than others and are in fact likely to live longer.

When I am looking to begin an action that looks bad, but that I believe will be positive once underway, optimism helps me get over the hump, out of bed, into the fray. It also helps me stick to decisions I made.

But there is also a negative side. Here’s Kahneman again:

Optimistic individuals… are talented and they have been lucky, almost certainly luckier than they acknowledge… Their experiences of success have confirmed their faith in their judgment and in their ability to control events. Their self-confidence is reinforced by the admiration of others. This reasoning leads to a hypothesis: the people who have the greatest influence on the lives of others are likely to be optimistic and overconfident, and to take more risks than they realize.

This got me thinking about historical optimists, such as the generals and leaders on all sides who ignited World War One. They undertook the war optimistic that they could win great gains with minimal effort, and remained optimistic in spite of mounting losses. They could not see, even in the light of casualties which dwarfed expectations, that their persistence was tragic and costly.

Kahneman continues:

The economists Ulrike Malmendier and Geoffrey Tate identified optimistic CEOs… and observed that highly optimistic leaders took excessive risks. They assumed debt rather than issue equity and were more likely than others to ‘overpay for target companies and undertake value-destroying mergers’.

This passage struck a little closer to home. While I lack the expertise to discern a value-destroying merger from a value-adding one, I recognize the optimism in the leadership of Berklee. A new campus in Valencia, ambitious building acquisition and construction, and big bets on on-line education characterize the optimism of Berklee’s administration.

What is the antidote to optimism? It isn’t pessimism. “No we can’t!” is not anybody’s idea of a rallying cry. The antidote to optimism is listening. Here’s Kahneman again:

[P]ublic doubts about the wisdom of the planned move are gradually suppressed and eventually come to be treated as evidence of flawed loyalty to the team and its leaders. The suppression of doubt contributes to overconfidence in a group where only supporters of the decision have a voice” [emphasis added]

The Berklee Faculty Union is a voice which remains free of the echo chamber of decision-making at Berklee. Administrators who want avoid overvaluing their own intuition and instead make themselves aware of inconvenient facts will view the faculty as a sounding board which can provide valuable insights that they would not have perceived on their own. Astute leaders will use the information gleaned from the faculty to modify their positions toward the ones with the best chance of a successful outcome.

I’m not ready to give up on optimism. But I’m staying sharp against predictions which are actually best-case scenarios.


Interested in "Thinking, Fast and Slow" but don't have time to read 500 pages? Here's a 10-minute video summary.

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