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Neural mechanisms mediating optimism bias


Humans expect positive events in the future even when there is no evidence to support such expectations. For example, people expect to live longer and be healthier than average1, they underestimate their likelihood of getting a divorce1, and overestimate their prospects for success on the job market2. We examined how the brain generates this pervasive optimism bias. Here we report that this tendency was related specifically to enhanced activation in the amygdala and in the rostral anterior cingulate cortex when imagining positive future events relative to negative ones, suggesting a key role for areas involved in monitoring emotional salience in mediating the optimism bias. These are the same regions that show irregularities in depression3, which has been related to pessimism4. Across individuals, activity in the rostral anterior cingulate cortex was correlated with trait optimism. The current study highlights how the brain may generate the tendency to engage in the projection of positive future events, suggesting that the effective integration and regulation of emotional and autobiographical information supports the projection of positive future events in healthy individuals, and is related to optimism.

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Figure 1: Optimism related to expected time of event and sense of pre-experiencing future events.
Figure 2: Activity in the amygdala and rACC and its relation to optimism.
Figure 3: Brain activity during past and future trials.


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This study was supported by the NIMH (E.A.P.), the Seaver Foundation (grant to NYU’s Center for Brain Imaging), and a Margaret and Herman Sokol Postdoctoral Fellowship (T.S.). We thank S. H. Mulhern, D. C. Johnson and J. K. Szary for help in data analysis, and D. Schiller, J. H. McDermott and Y. Trope for discussion.

Author Contributions T.S. designed the study. T.S. and E.A.P. interpreted the data and wrote the paper. T.S. and A.M.R. developed stimuli, gathered behavioural pilot data, and conducted behavioural data analysis. T.S. gathered fMRI data. T.S. conducted neuroimaging analyses with the help of A.M.R. and C.M.R., and with advice of E.A.P. Whole-brain exploratory analysis was conducted by C.M.R.

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Correspondence to Elizabeth A. Phelps.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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The file contains Supplementary Table 1, Supplementary Figure 1 and Legend, Supplementary Data, Supplementary Discussion, Supplementary Methods and additional references. (PDF 173 kb)

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Sharot, T., Riccardi, A., Raio, C. et al. Neural mechanisms mediating optimism bias. Nature 450, 102–105 (2007).

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