The Optimist’s Reward

The brain allocates energy based on belief.

A recent study at the California Institute of Technology demonstrated the effect of perception on what’s referred to as “neural effort”. In essence, researchers found optimism and pessimism affected the amount of work nerve cells into a task.

Positive-minded people are motivated by grander reward and those mired in negativity are “trying harder to avoid losses and seem to care less about potential gains”.

This is hardly a surprise. Most would argue it’s common sense.

What’s most striking is the lack of correlation to actual results.

As subjects performed the task–one hard enough even an author of the study admitted he failed–functional MRI lit up based on their evaluation of how the test went. To quote the article, “individuals in the group who believed they had performed well were just as likely to have performed poorly, and vice versa for individuals in the group who believed they had done badly”.

This has interesting implications in the big picture.

Extrapolating the results, it’s easy to see how our concept of the progress we’re making will shape our desire to continue after falling short. At school and work, we often face situations where we think we are on track and end up off the map. Which group is more likely to pursue the correct answer–the optimist or pessimist?

Eventually, by way of combining good outlook with continuous effort, we end up accomplishing whatever we set out to.

Carrying on is an exercise in placing the result behind the effort, exercising “that fabulous quality that keeps you from knowing just how unsuited you are for what you are about to do”, to borrow from comedian Steve Martin. This “selective ignorance” led the subjects in the study to keep going regardless of the challenge.

Achievement is, in this way, the product of hope and persistence.

It’s a matter of saying, “I’m doing all right” when the outcome is unfavorable.

Then, it comes time to make another push just as forceful as the one before–if not more so.

Finally, after smiling and sweating through round after round of attempts, the reward arrives, just as expected.

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3 Responses to “The Optimist’s Reward”


  1. 1 agentontheloose August 5, 2010 at 11:04 am

    This is great. It’s all about moving past obstacles and it’s just as I suspected, a positive attitude is essential in neutralizing failures!

    • 2 Jason Eichacker August 5, 2010 at 12:12 pm

      Absolutely! And, aside from washing away failure, a positive attitude makes us better positioned to utilize the takeaways–what worked well–as we go forward with the next attempt.


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