Environmental variability can select for optimism or pessimism




Ecology Letters (2011) 14: 58–62


We propose operational definitions of reproductive optimism and pessimism; optimism involves behaving in a way that gives too much weight (in terms of producing surviving offspring) to positive events, pessimism gives too much weight to negative events. Natural selection maximizes the long-term growth of a lineage rather than short-term measures such as numbers of offspring. Consequently, optimism or pessimism can be favoured by natural selection, even though such biases appear irrational from a short-term perspective. We investigate the evolution of optimism in a metapopulation. The circumstances of a patch change over time, independently of other patches. With sufficient dispersal between patches, stochasticity affects members of a lineage largely independently and optimism is favoured. With little dispersal, the temporal fluctuations of a patch affect many members similarly; pessimism is then favoured. Our results establish that the spatial and temporal structure of the environment is crucial in determining the direction of evolved biases.