About six weeks ago, I came across this TED talk from Tali Sharot about something called the "optimism bias," which she defines as "the tendency to overestimate our likelihood of experiencing good events in our life and the tendency to underestimate the likelihood of experiencing bad events in our lives." She also jokingly calls it the "triumph of hope over experience."
This got my attention because it's right in my neighborhood as a Vol fan recently. I started writing about the Vols in 2005, not a great season to start. 2007 was cool, but y'all know all the stories about 2008. And 2009, '10, and '11.
But here I am again, hopeful and optimistic for another Tennessee Football season. What's wrong with me?
Well, here's my short Letter from the Editor in Rocky Top Tennessee 2012 (which you can still pre-order to get free shipping, a free and immediate download of the ebook, and delivery of the print edition the week of July 9):
I once saw this relatively obscure movie called A Family Thing starring Robert Duvall and James Earl Jones as long lost half brothers. At one point in the film, Duvall's character - Earl Pilcher, Jr. - tells his nephew this overlong story, the details of which I can't really recall. Something about a guy he once knew who always took this girl on this trip at the same time all the time. The particulars are fuzzy because honestly, the whole story comes off as a bizarre expedition into the irrelevant, which I guess is the point. When the nephew responds to the end of the story with a long uncomprehending stare, Pilcher concludes by saying, "Being happy ain't nothin' more than havin' something to look forward to."
That's hope in a nutshell. The positive anticipation that something good is going to happen. It drives many things in life, but it is absolutely essential to sports fans. I'm often asked by advertising folks in my licensed sports apparel store what our demographic is, and my answer is always the same: "Whoever still has hope. Age, gender, and income don't matter. They're in our demographic if they still have hope for their team."
The good thing is that hope is renewed each and every August for college football fans. It may get slaughtered into sausage as early as September - this is one of the primary reasons Vols fans despise Gators fans - but if your team remains in contention, your hope remains intact.
The enemy of hope, of course, is despair, and despair can visit a season and leave or it can return next year with friends and threaten to turn your home sweet home into its own personal crack house. Tennessee football fans in 2012 know better than most what sort of havoc despair can wreak on a fan base once it's infiltrated the collective.
Yet here we are, once again infused with hope. Despair may be just outside the door, but it is outside, and inside the scoreboard is loaded up and waiting for the first snap of the first game. And we feel it. This year will be different. This time our guys will be bigger, stronger, faster, better prepared. This time the ball will bounce our way. We know that there's a chance that things could go terribly wrong. Again. But we hope that now is the time that things instead go wonderfully right.
And that's something to look forward to.
The mere thought of something really good happening this season makes me giddy, and if you, like me, are in the 80% of people who have the "optimism bias," then it makes you happy, too. But is it really a good thing to ignore experience? I think yes, for the reasons I'll discuss below. Ms. Sharot seems to agree, although with the caveat that we don't get completely stupid about it.
The video of Sharot's talk is embedded below, but here's my take on it:
The Optimism Bias is good for us. Folks without it seem to think that the secret to happiness is low expectations, that if we don't expect good things, we won't be disappointed when they don't happen, and if they do, we'll be pleasantly surprised. It's their magic formula for happiness.
But it turns out that happy is not actually what happens when you think that way. Why? Three reasons:
1. Interpretation Matters
Whether they succeed or fail, people with high expectations apparently always feel better because of the way they interpret the results. When people with high expectations are right, they believe they were successful because they deserved to be. The good thing happened because they were good. They're going to continue to be good, and good things will continue to happen to them. And when they fail, it's not because there's something wrong with them but because something unfair or out of the ordinary happened. They chalk it up to some quirk and believe that the next time (or soon) it will be better. (Wow. That describes most of my posts on the Vols over the past six years. Lightbulb.)
People with low expectations, however, usually feel just as bad because of the way they interpret the results. When they are right about bad things happening, they believe they failed because they deserved to fail. But if they succeed, they chalk it up to fortune, something out of the ordinary. The next time, reality will catch up, and they continue to feel bad.
So it sounds like both the optimists and the pessimists feel pretty much the same before and after the results because they interpret those results the same way they developed their expectations. Okay.
2. Anticipation Makes Us Happy
Tennessee does anticipation better than most college football programs, so we Vol fans know that anticipation is happy juice. But it was enlightening to learn that people generally prefer Fridays to Sundays despite the fact that Sunday is a rest day and Friday is a work day. Why? Because of anticipation. On Friday, you're anticipating the weekend, and on Sunday, you're anticipating Monday. Apparently, people with the optimism bias anticipate more and better things, and so they spend more time sipping the happy juice on the veranda. And the outcome of the event anticipated, which is still in the future, cannot have any impact on anticipation of the outcome. Yes, prior outcomes can, but that one future outcome can't.
3. Optimism changes objective reality
This one was really interesting to me, and it really makes sense. Optimism often acts as a self-fulfilling prophecy. It's not only related to success, it leads to success because it motivates you to try harder.
Yes, fan optimism is different because we fans don't have any direct control over the outcome of a sports event. But fans and fan bases do have a degree of indirect control over the emotions/attitudes/etc. of the team they support, and although there's plenty of room for debate on the question of how much they can affect the outcome of a game, I think it's clear that they can at least have some impact. The relationship between an athlete or sports team and its fans is symbiotic. They feed off each other, and the food they provide to the relationship can impact the other.
So those are three reasons a lifestyle of low expectations doesn't lead to happiness, and, phrased another way, why expecting good things -- embracing the optimism bias -- can make you feel good.
But, but, but, but what about reality? Doesn't that matter at all? Aren't you a complete idiot if you don't alter your expectations in light of experience?
Sure. But here's some more good news. If it's true that optimism is the happy place and pessimism is . . . somewhere else, then you'd hope (heh) that optimists would be much more hesitant to cast away their high expectations than pessimists would be to cast away their low expectations. And that's exactly what happens.
Sharot provides the following example. If a person originally thought their likelihood of getting cancer was only 10% but were then told that it was 30%, they would only adjust their answer to 11%. Basically, an optimistic person with overzealous expectations mostly ignores reality and clings to hope when confronted with bad news. But if a person originally thought their likelihood of getting cancer was 50% but were then told that it was only 30%, they would adjust their answer to 35%. So someone with low expectations getting favorable information adjusts their expectations closer to reality. If the goal is reality, the pessimists win here, but if the goal is happy hope, the optimists win. The pessimists will call them idiots for their ignorance in ignoring the facts, but the optimists will just sit in their chair and smile and wonder whether the guy outside the window screaming that he is right is happy. Regardless of how you see it, the lesson in the above is that Hope dies hard, and that there's hope even for Despair, and isn't that a good thing?
Are there dangers in blind optimism? Of course. All the optimism that you can fly when you jump out the window without a parachute isn't going to save you from a hard landing. But as long as you're not completely stupid about it, optimism is a great thing with great benefits. And it is possible to remain hopeful and optimistic while still be realistic enough about the situation to not get seriously injured. That's where I try to live, both when it comes to life in general and when it comes to the Vols.
Tennessee is climbing out of a three-year hole. They've not only been down the road to perdition and back, they were on the work crew. They have an almost entirely new staff and will be learning yet another new scheme defensively. And the competition in the SEC is not getting any easier.
But they finally have some depth. They have 19 returning starters and are at the top of the class when it comes to experience. They have Tyler Bray and Justin Hunter and Da'Rick Rogers and Jim Chaney and an offensive line with some seasoning and a handful of promising running backs learning from former Vol Jay Graham. They have coaches on the defensive side who have recent national championship experience that they can impart to an increasingly talented stable of defensive players.
They have promise.
And I have hope for good things in 2012.
Order the 116-page full color print version of Rocky Top Tennessee 2012 today and get free shipping, a free copy of the ebook that you can download immediately, and delivery of the print edition the week of July 9.
Here's the Sharot video. Start at 4:10 if you're short on time.