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Optimistic and pessimistic biases: a primer for behavioural ecologists

Lookup NU author(s): Professor Melissa BatesonORCiD



This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC BY 4.0).


© 2016 The Author To address the adaptive value of optimism/pessimism an operational definition is required. I define a behavioural decision as relatively optimistic if it is consistent with the animal having either, a higher expectation of reward, or a lower expectation of punishment (threat), than the same animal in a different state (or a different animal). Pessimism is the inverse of optimism. Such relative behavioural biases can arise from various cognitive mechanisms, and do not require inaccurate (i.e. biased) cognitive representations of the probabilities of either rewards or punishers. Normative models show that optimistic and pessimistic behavioural biases can be adaptive in the face of risk or uncertainty. Empirical evidence from a range of species can be interpreted as supporting predictions of these models. Behavioural biases are hypothesised to be a key component of affective states, whose evolutionary function is to prioritise the allocation of resources towards the currently most important fitness-relevant activities.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Bateson M

Publication type: Review

Publication status: Published

Journal: Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences

Year: 2016

Volume: 12

Pages: 115-121

Print publication date: 01/12/2016

Online publication date: 21/10/2016

Acceptance date: 02/04/2016

ISSN (print): 2352-1546

Publisher: Elsevier Ltd


DOI: 10.1016/j.cobeha.2016.09.013