Optimism and Pessimism

The terms optimism and pessimism refer to the tendencies of people to expect that good things will happen and to expect that bad things will happen, respectively. Persons who believe that their goals can be achieved despite the difficulties they might encounter are said to hold an optimistic view. They are predisposed to think that whatever problems may come their way, they will be able to manage and resolve them. Pessimism is the general tendency to expect negative outcomes. These individuals tend to view future experiences negatively. They are predisposed to think about the potential negative outcomes of whatever problems, setbacks, challenges, or difficulties are placed in their way.

In recent years optimistic and pessimistic expectations have been found to predict who will succeed. Regardless of job or level in the organization, individuals encounter many curve balls: changes, obstacles, difficulties, or adversities on the job. Whether it is dealing with a sudden change in procedures; an irate customer, coworker, or boss; or an accidentally deleted important e-mail, it is estimated that the average employee can face up to 23 adversities in just one day. How well employees handle these job challenges can affect how productive they are as well as their ability to learn, adapt, overcome future obstacles, meet goals, and even lead others. In sum, how successfully employees deal with adverse situations affects their success as well as the organization’s success. Thus optimism and pessimism can have important ramifications for an organization in the selection, training, motivation, and work life of its employees and leaders.

Optimism and Pessimism Background and Key Issues

It has only been within the past 35 or so years that we have seen a renewed interest among psychologists in understanding the constructs of optimism and pessimism and their effects on individuals’ lives. Michael Scheier and Charles Carver were the pioneers of this research stream based on their studies examining generalized outcome expectancies. Martin Seligman’s work on learned helplessness and more recently, positive psychology, has also provided a strong influence for sparking additional research. Today we see an explosion of studies examining the effects of optimism and pessimism on our health, physical and mental well-being, and psychological adjustment. It has generally been found that those who tend toward an optimistic perspective experience fewer physical symptoms of stress, cope more effectively with stressful events, and adjust better to important life transitions. The positive effects for optimism tend to be explained by the type of coping strategies typically embraced by those with an optimistic perspective. Optimism is related to an individual’s use of adaptive, engaging coping strategies, which include rational problem solving, cognitive restructuring, expressing emotions, and seeking social support during stressful times. Conversely, pessimism is related to an individual’s use of maladaptive, disengaging coping strategies, which include avoiding problems, impulsive and careless problem solving, being self-critical, and socially withdrawing from stressful situations.

Despite the potential value of optimism and pessimism, few studies have examined these important notions of optimism and pessimism in an organizational context. More research is needed. Before reviewing what we know about the role of optimism and pessimism in the workplace, a key issue in the literature centers on the measurement of optimism and pessimism and the dimensionality of these constructs.

Measurement of Optimism and Pessimism

A number of different instruments have been developed to assess optimism and pessimism. The distinctions among the instruments stem mainly from the different theoretical perspectives held by the researchers. As a consequence it can be a challenge to compare and contrast the findings across studies, which have used different measures of optimism and pessimism. Therefore, it is crucial to become familiar with the measures to understand the research.

The Life Orientation Test (LOT) is probably the most popular measure used to assess optimism and pessimism. It is based on the notion that optimism and pessimism are generalized outcome expectancies; for example, “Rarely do I expect good things to happen.” The LOT was revised, resulting in the Revised Life Orientation Test (RLOT).

One debated issue in the literature deals with the dimensionality of optimism and pessimism (discussed in more detail in the following text). In short, the LOT and RLOT were developed as unidimensional measures of dispositional optimism, but there is now evidence suggesting the LOT is bidimensional. The Extended Life Orientation Test (ELOT) has added to this evidence by demonstrating that a two-factor model provided the best fit, resulting in separate scores for optimism and pessimism. Regardless, the LOT, RLOT, and ELOT tend to provide the most direct assessment of optimism and pessimism.

The attributional style questionnaire (ASQ) is also a popular measure that assesses the constructs based on an individual’s tendency to explain or make attributions for positive and negative events. As a more indirect measure, respondents are given a negative or positive event and asked to indicate one major cause for the event and rate the internality, stability, and globality. Those who are labeled as having a pessimistic explanatory style believe bad things happen to them because it has something to do with them (internal) and happens frequently (stable) and across all situations (global). Individuals with an optimistic explanatory style believe positive things happen to them because of internal, stable, and global factors. The expanded attributional style questionnaire (EASQ), a revision to the ASQ, is composed of 24 negative events only. Another technique to assess explanatory style, the content analysis of verbatim explanations (CAVE), has also been developed.

Other measures of optimism and pessimism include the optimism-pessimism instrument, the defensive pessimism questionnaire (DPQ), and the Hope Scale.

Dimensionality of Optimism and Pessimism

Optimism and pessimism have traditionally been considered polar opposites on a continuum. From this perspective, a person is either optimistic or pessimistic but cannot hold optimistic and pessimistic perspectives concurrently. This singular way of thinking is limiting because it could be argued that overly optimistic beliefs are not always advantageous. Consider, for example, the disastrous outcome for an individual who decides to spend forthcoming winnings after buying a lottery ticket because the person felt so optimistic about winning and thus neglected to think about the dismal odds. Consequently, more recent thinking along with supportive evidence has shown that we can hold some of both aspects and therefore, optimism and pessimism are believed to represent two independent or partially independent constructs. Notably, when treating optimism and pessimism as separate constructs, distinct results have been obtained. Interestingly, specific terms have also been coined to reflect this separateness notion such as flexible optimism, defensive pessimism, cautious optimists, or strategic optimists.

Optimism and Pessimism in the Work Setting

Optimism and pessimism have been examined with regard to academic performance among college freshmen and career planning and exploration in high school students. In addition, their effects on stress, coping, and effort at work have been topics of study. In general, optimism buffered against the occupational and life stress of university teachers and burnout for information technology professionals, and it led to increased effort intentions of salespeople.

Only a handful of studies have examined the effects of optimism and pessimism on job performance. Interestingly, each study used a different measure of optimism, pessimism, and job performance and also used employees in different types of jobs. In a study that used the ASQ, life insurance agents with an optimistic explanatory style sold more life insurance and reported a lower likelihood of quitting their jobs than did agents with a pessimistic style. In another study using a single overall LOT score, pessimistic call center employees reported higher levels of self-reported performance, more satisfaction, and lower turnover intent than optimists. Optimists, however, perceived lower levels of job stress and work and nonwork conflict than the pessimists. Finally, in a third study, the effects of separate measures of optimism and pessimism using the ELOT found both optimism and pessimism to be related to supervisory-rated ratings of overall job performance for production employees in a manufacturing plant. Pessimism, however, was found to remain a significant predictor after controlling for variance accounted for by selection measures such as a personality test and work skills inventory. These findings demonstrate the importance of assessing optimism and pessimism separately.

These three studies, which examined the effects of optimism and pessimism on job performance, vividly demonstrate the challenge of comparing across results in which different measures of optimism and pessimism have been used. Therefore, this area could benefit greatly from more systematic research that clearly addresses the measurement and dimensionality of optimism and pessimism.

Given the power of optimism and pessimism on our lives in general and the role of such positive and negative thinking in work situations, a number of important questions about optimism and pessimism await further research. There is relatively little work on the selection, training, and job performance of individuals in work settings. It will also be interesting to explore what those who now hold optimistic and pessimistic perspectives do when they encounter threatening, challenging, and novel situations. Although research has not tended to find gender difference with regard to optimistic and pessimistic perspectives, some cultural differences have been noted between Asian Americans and Caucasian Americans and should be further explored. From an optimistic perspective, the opportunities are endless for research; but from a pessimistic perspective, the construct issues of measurement and dimensionality of optimism and pessimism must be faced so that research in this area can advance.

References:

  1. Chang, E. C. (Ed.). (2002). Optimism & pessimism: Implications for theory, research and practices. Washington, DC: APA.
  2. Macan, T. H., Heft, L., & Roberts, L. (2005). Optimism and pessimism: Predictors of success in the workplace? Paper presented at the 20th Annual SIOP conference, Los Angeles,
  3. Seligman, M. E., & Schulman, P. (1986). Explanatory style as a predictor of productivity and quitting among life insurance agents. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 50, 832-838.
  4. Stolz, P. G. (2000). The adversity quotient @ work. New York: Morrow.
  5. Tuten, T. L., & Neidermeyer, P. E. (2004). Performance, satisfaction, and turnover in call centers: The effects of stress and optimism. Journal of Business Research, 57, 26-34.

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