Every day we are inundated with information which we use it to update our beliefs and this daily process influences our decisions and actions. How we update our beliefs is really important in the way we interact with the world, however we do not do this in a neutral way. Most people are hardwired for optimism and they update their beliefs by favoring positive over negative news.

Neil Garrett, a Postdoctoral Researcher in the Daw Lab at Princeton Neuroscience Institute is currently investigating the way individuals process information and the factors that influence this learning process, using a combination of complimentary approaches; from computer science, to behavioral economics and brain imaging.

We met Neil Garret at the Emtech France, the largest and most prestigious European conference on emerging technologies, organized by the MIT Technology Review in Toulouse.

According to the results of many studies Neil Garrett has conducted, people tend to have an optimistic bias and are more responsive to good news rather than bad ones. Does this bias change with age? “I did many studies on this subject examining people from the age of 9 to 90. Regardless of your age you are more likely to update your beliefs favoring good or positive information. As you go from adolescence to middle age, your sensibility to negative information increases but then as you get older your sensitivity decreases”.

Stress and integration of information

Stress is also an important factor. For example, when you are young or a senior, your stress levels are low but when you are middle aged, your stress levels are higher. It is well known that stress causes many changes in your body and your brain.

“I wanted to see how stressful environments can change the way we integrate information” Neil Garrett says and for that he looked for a population that has variable stress levels. He chose to work with a group of firefighters in Colorado to whom he told them to evaluate the likelihood of negative incidents such as burglary and card fraud happening to them. He then gave them the average which was either higher or lower than what they had said. Then he asked them again to see what they had retained. What this study has shown is that when we go into a stressful environment, our sensitivity to negative information increases and it can also affect the people we interact with.

We overestimate the positive likelihood of events but underestimate the likelihood of negative ones. “This can have a lot of positive impact; it can boost motivation, increase persistence and productivity as well as health benefits. People with optimistic expectations live longer, recover faster from operations and have low instances of depression”.

However, there are disadvantages too. For example, smokers underestimate the likelihood of getting cancer. “So how can get people to change their behavior regarding certain things given that they have this optimistic bias?” Telling people that if they continue to smoke they will get sick does not really work. “If however, you give them immediate rewards, then they are more likely to respond and take action”. So what does Neil Garrett suggest? “Reward substitution. Favor immediate vs future possibilities and give social incentives”.