Optimism Bias and Extinction


image CNN


  1. Whatever happens, whether you succeed or fail, people with high expectations always feel better. They usually attribute success to their superior ability and failure with “bad luck.”
  2.  The pure act of anticipation makes us happy. We enjoy imagining the better days ahead. People with mild depression are actually more realistic than healthy individuals.
  3.  Optimism changes reality because it acts as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Optimism leads to success and health. If we expect the future to be bright, stress and anxiety are reduced (and we perform better).

Experiments have shown if people believe they have a ten percent chance of getting cancer and then are told the true figure of thirty percent, when asked later they will say they have an eleven percent chance. This profound (and quite common) self-deception is the feature in human behavior that could lead to the end of our species. Most people can understand quite well the likelihood of divorce is forty percent and the likelihood of cancer is thirty but they refuse to believe those numbers apply to them.

The more optimistic you are the less likely your brain is to respond to negative information. Firefighter fatality investigations often contain statements such as “we did not think the fire was going to do that”, even though the facts indicated it would. We tolerate the optimism bias in our everyday life but when it influences decisions that affect the future of the human race we are in reality vastly increasing the likelihood of our extinction.

We do not believe any highly lethal pathogen will result in most of the human race dying but the COVID-19 virus is the perfect example of this optimism not necessarily being warranted. If the virus had both a high mortality and been highly contagious we could be looking at the collapse of global infrastructure and subsequent death by starvation, as well as disease, of most of the human race. We are also quite happy believing there is no dinosaur killer on a collision course with our planet but…it could happen tomorrow.

COVID-19 appears to have a mortality rate of 3 to 4 percent and the Chelyabinsk (70 feet in diameter) airburst injured around 1,600. The Ebola virus has a 90 percent mortality rate and the Chixculub impactor that killed the dinosaurs was between 7 (asteroid) and 50 (comet) miles in diameter. We believe that somehow these percentages that minimize the effect of events like pandemics and impacts on our existence will always be on our side. It is crazy to believe that.

When considering “deep time” (geologic time) and statistical probabilities, what we would see if a 100 percent lethal pathogen (such as a genetically engineered biological warfare agent) or a 100 mile diameter asteroid impactor were to render us extinct, is just a small spike in the infographic. Our optimism bias makes that graph invisible to us.

We have the ability, at this moment in history, to direct vast resources at threats to our species. Instead, we direct vast resources at marketing shoes and pet products and allow a tiny minority of sociopaths to amass unimaginable wealth. As I have stated many times; millennia in the future, aliens studying our dead civilization will shrug and conclude, “they were too stupid to survive.”

The optimism bias also applies to engineering and public works projects and it is accepted that cost over-runs are somehow inevitable. In reality a simply formula to correct for the optimism bias in these projects would bring most of them in under cost. The most interesting project to cite in this category is, in my view, the SLS.

SaturnV SLS cost

Infographic: r/SpaceLaunchSystem

Thirty-two SLS launches might result in assembling a true spaceship, the first of many to come, that would be able to use nuclear devices to deflect any impact threat. By increasing the SLS launch cadence to 6-8 missions per year (by abandoning LEO and Mars and redirecting that funding) a cislunar infrastructure could be created that would ultimately result in independent off-world space colonies immune to terrestrial extinction level events. Then we would no longer be too stupid to survive.




Published by billgamesh

Revivable Cryopreservation Advocate

%d bloggers like this: