Costs and benefits of optimism

Lisa Bortolotti and Anneli Jefferson have been awarded a 12-month non-residential fellowship as part of  The Philosophy of Hope and Optimism funding initiative made possible by 3-year grant at the University of Notre Dame and Cornell University. The idea is to explore the theoretical, empirical, and practical dimensions of hope, optimism, and related states. 

The project Lisa and Anneli will be working on asks whether it is beneficial or detrimental to be optimistic. The empirical literature suggests that some forms of optimism can be good for us, helping us to achieve our goals and react positively to set backs, but other forms of optimism lead to disappointment or to excessively risky behaviour. The project aims to develop a new framework in which these findings can be interpreted. The first step will be to distinguish between different forms of optimism and to discuss how they relate to one another. The second step will be to establish what costs and benefits a bias towards optimism can have, and consider its effects on wellbeing, genetic fitness, moral behaviour, and knowledge. Whereas there is already a vast empirical literature on the contributions of optimism to wellbeing, different forms of optimism have not been carefully distinguished, and this has prevented researchers from arriving at a clear, overall picture of the impact of optimism is on human agency. In particular, the question whether optimism promotes agents’ knowledge and moral behaviour has yet to be addressed systematically.

The project will have a number of scholarly outputs (four journal articles), and will give rise to one public engagement event and one two-day interdisciplinary conference on optimism. Further, results will be disseminated widely via the Imperfect Cognitions blog, a dedicated project website, and a Twitter feed.