Tim Lott: We're hardwired to hope. Why, we even believe that England can win

The human race would end if it faced up to the reality of potential disaster or failure. We prefer the distorted perspective of optimism
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The Independent Online

It's quite amazing to me that people are already starting to talk seriously about England winning the World Cup – after one reasonably decent game which they won by one goal against mediocre opposition.

Even more remarkable is that I half believe it myself, despite the fact we will have to get past Germany, Brazil and Argentina to achieve this historic, and entirely hypothetical, triumph. But despite its being palpably absurd, I'm thoroughly enjoying the illusion.

The source of this act of faith lies in the apparently universal human ability to lose all sense of perspective when the situation requires.

People talk as if losing perspective was inevitably disastrous – as in the irrefutable notion that the credit crunch came about because of a mass suspension of a proper sense of reality. But it is rarely acknowledged that our capacity for blind fantasy, while possessing a destructive side, also keeps us sane and enriches our lives.

There's a great scene in This Is Spinal Tap when, visiting Graceland and paying tribute at the grave of Elvis Presley, dim-witted guitarist Nigel Tufnel remarks to dim-witted vocalist David St Hubbins that Elvis's demise "really puts perspective on things".

"Yeah," responds David, flatly. "Too much facking perspective."

St Hubbins would undoubtedly have been a fan of the The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, in which Douglas Adams wrote of the Total Perspective Vortex. The Vortex was, according to the Encyclopedia Galactica, the most horrible torture device that a sentient being could be subjected to.

The Vortex was invented by Trin Tragula to annoy his wife (she had accused her husband of lacking a sense of proportion), and whoever underwent the Vortex ordeal immediately went mad, as it gave them total perspective on "Life, the Universe and Everything". When you entered the Vortex, you were given a momentary glimpse of the unimaginable infinity of creation, and somewhere in it was a tiny little mark, a microscopic dot on a microscopic dot, which says: "You are here."

In Adams's words, the Total Perspective Vortex illustrated the fact that "in an infinite universe, the one thing sentient life cannot afford to have is a sense of proportion".

It's all in the name of comedy, but both St Hubbins and Adams put their fingers on a very important fact. It's not merely that we are incapable of true intellectual or moral perspective – but that life would be unbearable if we were capable of it. If people couldn't lose their sense of perspective they'd never dream, never get excited about anything, never invent anything. It's an indispensable part of the human spirit.

To come back to earth, consider falling in love and getting married as a good, everyday example of failed perspective. Everyone knows that the odds of enjoying a long happy marriage are stacked against you, since half end in divorce and a pretty good proportion of the survivors clearly soldier on out of grim determination or simple fear. But people go on getting married – just as they go on having children even though they're extremely expensive, highly annoying and more or less entirely lacking in gratitude. Does it discourage people? Not in the slightest.

Our lack of perspective carries the penalty of imprisoning our children in their homes, unable to play freely as a result of our irrational fears of abduction. But that same irrationality has the consequence that we happily drive them around in cars, even though road traffic death statistics are terrifying compared with just about any other daily risk.

Likewise, we spend our lives worrying about how to maximise our children's potential – believing that our behaviour can affect their life outcomes – whereas scientific research suggests that genetics, peer group and luck are much more important (parental influence, according to Stephen Pinker's book The Blank Slate, is barely measurable).

But we continue to believe. We keep perspective at bay so that we can enjoy a sense of control and indulge in reassuring protective fantasies – and the delusion that we are having a positive effect produces positive results for our kids, who get to spend more fun time with us, even though the time spent is unlikely to affect the children's life outcomes, one way or another.

The more you think about it, the less perspective we can afford to have. Much in everyday life would be taken away from us if we had a perfect sense of perspective. For a start, no one would vote, since obviously your individual vote could never change the destiny of any single MP on election day (because logically no one is ever voted in on a margin of one vote).

No one would be able to enjoy the National Lottery if we truly could comprehend the level of odds stacked against us, and betting shops throughout the land would close down if the average punter was suddenly imbued with an Olympian perspective on the futility of his efforts.

So much the better, insists the dyed-in-the-wool rationalist. If people could learn to think straight and assess risks correctly, the world would be a more sensible, smoother-running place. Perhaps. But people would also be in despair.

Just suppose Douglas Adams's Total Perspective Vortex existed, and we could enter it. The first thing we would notice is something we as a species have been denying since the birth of human consciousness – that our lives are, from a grand perspective, meaningless, and random, with (usually) painful illness leading to perpetual oblivion.

In contemporary times, while the information revolution is meant to have given us more perspective than ever before, it has also provided limitless channels to escape it. The internet is the rationaliser's dream – evidence can be found there for anything you might want to believe.

Douglas Adam's Total Perspective Vortex would reveal other equally uncomfortable truths not only about our inability rationally to quantify our own situation, but also our incapacity to lead moral lives. It is a trope that, as you read this, some child is dying from poverty and disease, most probably partly as a result of centuries of colonial exploitation, while we enjoy the historical benefits of that exploitation. Our lack of perspective makes sure that this injustice continues – but it also means that our modest lives are psychologically supportable. If we were truly aware of the price of our everyday small pleasures, our consciences would surely collapse.

Furthermore, not only are we capable of blocking uncomfortable truths about our own lives, many of us continue to believe that good will triumph over evil. In psychology, this belief has been formally categorised as the Just World Hypothesis and filed among other common delusions. We are attracted to it because it allows us to blame victims for their own misfortune – for, if the world is just, then individual failure is a result of personal folly.

To talk of a perfect perspective means indulging in a feat of imagination that itself is hard to get into perspective. Each everyday decision would have to be referred to statisticians, risk assessors, and experts who could draw proper, balanced lessons from history. And it would still be a goal that was entirely impossible to achieve. Even using every rational tool available to them, economists still lose perspective on a massive scale, as do stock markets and politicians. So what chance do we have as individuals? And if magically we had the chance to gain that perspective, it would be surely disastrous to take that step.

The reality is that we are constructed out of partiality. Thing have to be out of perspective both for practical (our minds are too small for it to be otherwise) and emotional (we can't face the truth) reasons. As T S Eliot observed in "Burnt Norton", "Humankind cannot bear very much reality". And when it comes to the England football team, this insight was never more apt.

In our private worlds, Steven Gerrard holds the Jules Rimet trophy aloft, while the world bows down in admiration. In reality – studying history, form, Heskey and so on – the best probability is that we'll lose another penalty shootout if we are lucky enough to hold Germany to a draw. But thanks to the wonders of limited perspective, I have still a few hours to believe the impossible – and, given the alternative, there's nothing I'd rather believe in.