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Optimism – reacting to setbacks from a presumption of personal power

Bad events are temporary setbacks
Isolated to particular circumstances
Can be overcome by my effort and abilities

Pessimism -  reacting to setbacks from a presumption of personal helplessness:

Bad events will last a long time
Will undermine everything I do
Are my fault

Optimism psychology is in the field of cognitive science.  It is not magic.  But, the event-explanations of optimism can be practiced and learned, even by those who have not consistently used them previously.   


Inoculates against depression
Improves health
Combines with talent and desire to enable achievement

Learning to Be Helpless  

In his first research position after college, Martin Seligman saw behavior of dogs in the lab as “learned helplessness.”  The lead researcher and other graduate students only saw an annoyance because dogs weren’t reacting in a way that would let them continue with the main part of the experiment.  Seligman’s experience and learning, even at that preliminary stage, prepared him for an insight that would take years to prove to the psychology community, but that was true at the moment of insight.   

Observation:  It is not always the most well-credentialed and experienced individual, who will correctly interpret confusing results or data.  The confusion likely results from inadequate or faulty initial assumptions, and the learning and experience behind the credentials make it hard for the “expert” to question those assumptions.  In this case, the assumption was that the preliminary part of the experiment, where dogs were taught to associate a tone with a shock, was not important.  It was just a pre-requisite for the next stage.  Dr. Seligman, without years of experience in thinking that way, saw meaning in the dogs’ behavior.  

Animals in research:  Dr. Seligman inserts an interesting account of his own anguish at conducting experiments on animals.  He recognized the need for  animal research to prove his insights to the psychology community.  However, as an animal lover, especially a dog lover, he found the prospect of causing pain, albeit small, distasteful.  His undergraduate degree was in philosophy, and he decided to visit with one of his teachers.   

The professor, a student of ethics in the history of science, asked first whether there were any other way of cracking the problem of helplessness.  After discussion, they agreed that proof of the concept could not be developed without animal experimentation.  Then, turning to the question of whether infliction of pain on animals was ever justified, they discussed the many advances which had resulted in prolonged and improved life for both animals and people that came from animal experimentation.  On the other hand, much basic research, including animal experimentation, often failed to produce anything worthwhile.  

The professor proposed two questions for assessing the justification for experimentation.  First, was there a reasonable chance to eliminate much more pain in the long-run than would be caused in the short run?  Second, would generalization from experience with animals to people be possible?  When Seligman answered yes to both, the professor warned against getting caught up in ambition and forgetting his ideals.  He suggested a personal resolution to stop working with animals the day it became clear he had discovered answers to the major questions that required animal research.  

The animal research, and subsequent research with humans, established that both animals and humans can learn helplessness.  When faced with situations where they were powerless to change an annoying element, two out of three (both animals and humans) would cease trying to affect the situation.  Further, when placed in a new situation with a different annoying element, they would make no attempt from the beginning.  One in 10 would make no attempt to change an annoying element, even though they had not been exposed to an uncontrollable situation to cause them to learn helplessness.  And one in three would shrug off situations and continue acting to improve their lot regardless.  

Explaining Misfortune  

In this chapter, Dr. Seligman introduces the concept of "explanatory style.”  How we talk to ourselves about negative occurrences is the predominant determinant of optimism versus pessimism.  Interestingly, he does this by recounting a severe critique of his work delivered publicly in a lecture at Oxford University in April, 1975, by John Teasdale.  Rather than becoming defensive and rejecting Dr. Teasdale's analysis, Dr. Seligman solicited his partnership in developing an explanation for his results.  Out of this work came the concept of explanatory style.  Dr. Seligman writes:  

"Throughout my career, I’ve never had much use for the tendency among psychologists to shun criticism.  It's a long-standing tradition acquired from the field of psychiatry, with its medical authoritarianism and its reluctance to admit error.  Going back at least to Freud, the world of the research psychiatrists has been dominated by a handful of despots who treat dissenters like invading barbarians usurping their domain.  One critical word from a young disciple and he was banished.  p.42.  

Observation:  Many educational researchers should read, re-read, memorize, paraphrase, re-word in iambic pentameter, and otherwise study Dr. Seligman’s views until they have replaced their own defensiveness and dogmatism with his embrace of criticism.  

Ultimate Pessimism  

This chapter discusses the causal link between pessimism and depression.  Dr. Seligman suggests that depression is an epidemic within our society.  He also suggests that it is a result of learned helplessness, combined with modern elevation of the "self" and reduction of the meaningfulness of religion in many people's lives.  He presents evidence that most cases of depression are not biochemical or rooted in psychoanalytic causes.  Rather, they are habitual patterns of thought that have their genesis in the explanatory styles that lead to learned helplessness.  

How You Think, How You Feel  

Dr. Seligman shows that pessimism is very often the cause of depression, and that, through cognitive therapy (paying attention to and changing how one thinks), individuals can change a pessimistic explanatory style to an optimistic one and move out of their depression.  As the title says, by changing how we think, we can change how we feel.  

Women vs. Men  

Women suffer from depression more than men by a ratio of two to one, even though, as children, boys are more pessimistic than girls and more depressed.  Dr. Seligman suggest that the greater tendency of women to think about how they feel ("ruminating") may account for this sex difference in depression.  He cites the work of Susan Nolen-Hoeksema of Stanford University in support.  
Success at Work

"The explanatory-style theory of success says that in order to choose people for success in a challenging job, you need to select for three characteristics:  

1.      aptitude

2.      motivation

3.      optimism  

All three determine success." 

Working with Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, Dr. Seligman studied optimism in insurance agents.  He learned that life insurance agents are a stunningly optimistic group.  Metropolitan Life used an the insurance industry career profile to help screen new agent hires.  In 1985, 15,000 applicants took both an attributional style questionnaire and Met Life's career profile.  One thousand agents were hired based on the career profile alone, as Met Life had done in the past.  However, MetLife had a chronic shortage of agents and also hired 100 agents who scored just below the cutoff point on the career profile but in the top half of the ASQ.  

After two years, the optimists in the regular group of hires were outselling the pessimists by 31%.  Amazingly, however, the special hires outsold the pessimists in the regular force by 57%!  

The Value of Pessimism  

Dr. Seligman deals with the possible usefulness of pessimism for the first time in this chapter.  It is a topic he comes back to in more detail later.  Basically, he suggests that pessimism can keep us from taking risky, optimistic actions in areas where the downside risks are unacceptable.  Thus, many executives must, to some extent, be professional pessimists since they must weigh risks that could result in devastating loss to the organization with the attendant harsh personal consequences for employees, owners, partners, and customers.  

Children and Parents: the Origins of Optimism

"On the whole, prepubescent children are extremely optimistic, with a capacity for hope and an immunity to helplessness they will never again possess after puberty, when they lose much of their optimism." P.125.

"Children's explanatory style is enormously lopsided, much more so than adults'.  Good events are going to last forever, are going to help in all ways, and are the child's doing.  But events just happen along, melt away quickly, and are someone else's fault.  So lopsided is the average child that his scores look on average like those of a successful insurance sales agent for Metropolitan Life.  A depressed child's lopsided scores look like those of the average nondepressed adult’s.  No one seems to have the capacity for hope that a young child does, and it is just this fact that makes fear depression in a young child standout so tragically." P. 127

Optimistic children tend to become optimistic teenagers and adults.  On average they will be less depressed, achieve more, and be healthier than children whose scores are in the pessimistic range.  So, where to children get their explanatory style?  Dr. Seligman suggests three possibilities.

(1.) Mother's Explanatory Style:

Children ask "Why?" constantly, and are constantly listening to the explanations of adults in their lives (with the mother's explanations being heard most often).  Thus, if the mother's style is personal, pervasive, and permanent when bad events happen, the child hears and internalizes this.  If, on the other hand, the mother assigns specific, temporary, and external causes to bad events, the child learns to talk to herself in the same way.

(2.) Adult Criticism:  Teachers and Parents

Actually, this section is more about teachers than parents.  Dr. Seligman suggests that girls are generally more amenable to the discipline and culture of the typical elementary classroom.  Boys, on the other hand, tend to be more disruptive, fidget more, and generally act up.  As a result, boys who fail are typically told "You weren’t paying attention," or "You didn't try hard enough," or "You were being rowdy when I was teaching fractions."  Girls, on the other hand, often hear "You're not very good at arithmetic," or "You always hand in sloppy papers," or "You never check your work." 

(3.) Children’s Life Crises

Family or personal crises during childhood, and how those crises are resolved, can shape explanatory style.  One example is that children during the depression whose families recovered their lifestyle in the late 30’s and 40’s were more optimistic in old age (and aged better!) than those whose families did not.  (Determined by Content Analysis of Verbatim Explanations – CAVE – of detailed interviews collected prior to and during that period.)


Failure devastates us.  All of us, upon experiencing failure, quit -- at least temporarily.  Optimists bounce back and began trying almost immediately; defeat is temporary and achievement is assured.  Pessimists, on the other hand, are defined by their failures.  They are a failure, and there is no point in a failure continuing to try.

Comment:  Children are natural optimists, as discussed earlier, and they sure better be in our schools.  We often assure failure by such tactics as grading on the curve.  We define relative success as failure.  Please note that I am not arguing for low standards or namby-pamby, feel good education.  I am simply making a point as to how school is experienced for many students.  Is it any wonder that educators report "losing" students as they enter the later middle school years, which is approximately the same time that the natural optimism of childhood wanes.  These students are suddenly unable to cope with an environment they have been in long as they can remember.  How can such a failure not be a complete turn-off?

Working with Joan Girgus, and building on the work ofCarol Dweck, Dr. Seligman and his staff conducted a study of 3rd-grade children from 1995 until they finished seventh grade in 1999.  They found that children who began third grade with a pessimistic score on the CASQ were at risk for depression and severely-reduced academic achievement.  In addition, bad life events, especially including divorce and parental turmoil, contributed to a pessimistic explanatory style.  Over all, boys were significantly more depressed at all points along this age range then were girls. 

In college, students with optimistic explanatory styles will outperform predictive measures such as SAT scores or high school grades.  Students with pessimistic scores will under perform.


This chapter was amazing for me, not least because it dealt with baseball.  (Thank you, Tyler , for giving me in appreciation of this sport.)  In 1985, Dr. Seligman and his team read all of the sports pages in the hometown papers of each National League team.  They "CAVEd" every explanatory statement by every player and manager, then repeated the effort for 1986 -- about 15,000 pages of sports reporting.  They found that teams with optimistic explanatory styles performed better under pressure (defined as hitting with runners in scoring position during the last three innings) in 1986 and finished with better records than their 1985 performance would have suggested.

Earlier, they had read all of the hometown sports pages for each team in the NBA Atlantic division for all of 1982 and 1983.  Using the “spread" of the betting world as a method for compensating for differences in talent, they looked at how each team responded to adversity, defined as how they did against the spread in the game following a loss.  Once again, explanatory style accounted for the differences.

Finally, in 1988, Dr. Seligman worked with the University of California Berkeley swim team to determine which swimmers responded best under adversity.  In this case, adversity was defined as how they performed in their next event after a sub-par performance.  Matt Biondi had one of the most optimistic explanatory styles.  In the Summer Olympics in 1988 in Seoul , Korea , the media were talking of Biondi's chances of winning seven gold medals a la Mark Spitz in 1972.  Knowledgeable observers, however, thought seven medals of any type against the competition in Seoul would be an accomplishment.  Biondi took a disappointing bronze in the first event and, in an apparent mental error, coasted the last meter of the 100-meter buttyerfly (not his best event) and lost the gold by inches.  The media buzzed with speculation as to how he would respond.  Dr. Seligman was confident that, in accordance with his explanatory style, he would respond with top performances.  Dr. Seligman was right.  Biondi swept gold in the last five events!


Optimists have less illness, and recover more quickly than pessimists.  Depression lowers the functioning of the immune system, while studies of optimism show it may can cure cancer!  Dr. Seligman relates the research which supports the statements, but that is the bottom line.

Politics, Religion and Culture: a New Psycho history

As a science fiction aficionado, I could not help but enjoy this chapter built around Isaac Asimov's Foundation Trilogy with it’s founding premise of the fictional Hari Selden’s statistical psycho history.  Dr. Seligman tells how excited he was to learn that there actually was a field called psycho history, until he also learned that it consisted of constructing psychoanalytical explanations for the behaviors of historical characters.  See, for example, Erik Erikson's extrapolation of Martin Luther’s character from assumptions about his toilet training based on a few scraps of information about his childhood.

Selden 's psycho-history, on the other hand, dealt with large populations and statistical analyses.  One of Dr. Seligman's graduate students, Harold Zullow, an avid political observer, applied the CAVE technique to the acceptance speeches of presidential candidates from 1948 through 1984.  He learned that the more optimistic candidate won virtually every time.  He then went back and analyzed the “stump” speeches of presidential candidates from 1900 through 1944.  Again, the more optimistic candidates trounced those with a less optimistic explanatory style.

In other studies, more optimistic societies (using West and East Berlin ) achieve more than those with a pessimistic explanatory style. (See the work of Princess Gabriele of Ysenburg.)  And, religion and cultures that promote a sense of helplessness produce a people less prone to act in the face of adversity.  (Eva Morawska)

Changing: from Pessimism to Optimism

These are the chapters that make the book meaningful.  Without evidence we can change our explanatory styles, the message would be fatalistic.  The message that we can change, with thoughtful, explicit practice, is reason for hope and action.

However, as Dr. Seligman notes, the approaches presented for individuals, children, and in the organizational context are all built on the same principles.  The structure is “ABCDE”.

A = Adverse event or situation

B = Beliefs about that event

C = Consequences of those beliefs

D = Disputation and Distraction

E = Energization

As with all forms of mental discipline I have encountered, from sports psychology to these suggestions, they seem simplistic and somewhat silly when written on paper.  However, I have found that such disciplines, like exercise, healthy eating, systematic investing, and others, can have powerful effects when applied consistently and intelligently over time.  They are not magic.  But, they do work.

Briefly, the trick is to learn to identify adverse situations or events that your routinely face.  Learn to hear (and record) the beliefs about those events that come to your mind (the “recordings” you play in your head).  Feel the consequences of those beliefs (and write them down), in terms of emotions, energy, will to act, etc. Once you have gotten familiar with these components, dispute those beliefs and distract yourself.  Disputation can involve challenging the usefulness of the belief, generating alternative specific, external, and temporary explanations, focusing on evidence that contradicts or undermines the negative belief and supports a more positive interpretation, and challenging negative implications on which harmful beliefs rely.

In additions to disputation, distraction can be employed to stop the “loop” of these tapes in your head.  One suggestion is to wear a rubber band and snap it on your wrist while saying “Stop” in a loud voice.  Then write the worrisome beliefs, fears, etc. down to think about at a set future time.  This leaves one free to act.

Finally, notice what happens to your energy and will to act when you dispute the negative beliefs.  Over time, the disputation becomes rapid and effective as the energization from it rewards you for the effort.  Eventually, the positive explanatory style becomes your “default” response.

Flexible Optimism

Finally, Dr. Seligman returns to the fact that optimism is is not always the right approach.  He notes that pessimism has probably played a survival role during most of human history as we lived through harsh climatic changes and dangerous environs.  Worrying about high-risk negative consequences could keep the worrier and his or her dependents alive.  But, still, enough optimism to act was required, and in the developed world today, the justification for pessimism is more infrequent.

When a real risk of a severe negative consequence exists, a cautious, risk-avoiding approach is appropriate.  It is appropriate in such an instance to view the risk as pervasive, permanent, and applying to you and yours personally.  This can be a life-threatening risk (AIDS) or a life-damaging risk (pushing a developmentally unready child to start school, rather than holding him back).  But, when the risk is small (some wasted time and effort, a little public embarrassment, the possibility of a number of failures prior to success), take the optimistic view and ACT!

True to his philosophy undergraduate major, Dr. Seligman includes some ideas about changes in our culture such as increased importance of the “self”, less community, and decreased shared belief in region as reasons why pessimism and depression have reached such proportions at this time.  I find his views interesting, and possibly correct, but the evidence he presents does not seem compelling.  Regardless, the specifics he has spent his life researching concerning optimism, pessimism, their consequences, and our ability to affect our explanatory style seem extraordinarily important to anyone interested in teachers, students, learning and schools.