Optimism and Pessimism

Optimism refers to a hopeful disposition or a general belief that good things will happen, whereas pessimism describes a general expectation that bad things will happen. These constructs have been conceptualized as dispositional traits, as well as cognitive styles, and have been examined in relation to various outcomes. Generally, research indicates that optimism tends to be associated with a host of positive outcomes (e.g., higher levels of achievement and both mental and physical well-being), whereas pessimism tends to be associated with less favorable outcomes. However, under certain circumstances, optimism may be maladaptive. Counselors draw from various techniques when using these concepts in their clinical work, but cultural factors influence their use of interventions related to optimism and pessimism.

Optimism and Pessimism as Dispositional Traits

Michael F. Scheier and Charles S. Carver view optimism and pessimism as personality traits and have derived a self-regulatory model based on expectancy-value theory to describe how these traits relate to human experiences. The expectancy-value approach assumes that behavior is goal directed. The term expectancy refers to the probability a person attaches to the likelihood of attaining a given goal, and value refers to the value the person places on a particular goal.

According to the self-regulatory model, goals give meaning to people’s lives, but goals are subject to change, based on various forms of feedback. Individuals who experience adversity while pursuing a particular goal reassess the situation and the likelihood of success. This reassessment could lead to the identification of additional resources or alternative approaches to attaining the goal, or to abandoning the goal entirely. Optimists, who are more likely than pessimists to expect that they will be successful in achieving their goals, tend to persist in pursuit of their goals, despite adversity. For example, an optimistic college student might deal with a poor grade on the first exam in Introductory Biology by meeting with the instructor and revising his or her study techniques in order to better prepare for subsequent exams. In contrast, a pessimistic individual might deal with the same situation by “giving up,” avoiding the situation (e.g., no longer attending class), and/or dropping out of college.

Abandoning a goal that is unattainable can be adaptive when doing so leads to adoption of a more suitable alternative. For instance, a college student who continues to struggle with biology courses in pursuit of the goal of becoming a physician, might, upon assessment of the situation, decide upon a more suitable career path.

Optimists tend to remain more confident in the face of adversity than pessimists, and are more persistent in pursuing their goals. Optimists are more likely than pessimists to take direct action when dealing with problems, tend to be more planful when dealing with adversity, and take a more focused approach in their efforts to cope with problems. Furthermore, optimists tend to accept the reality of adverse situations more readily than pessimists. Optimists appear to have a greater ability to make the best of a bad situation, and they appear to be better able to grow or otherwise benefit from negative life experiences.

Optimism and Pessimism as Cognitive Styles

The notion that cognitive styles bear a causal relationship to our affective experiences derives from Aaron Beck’s cognitive theory of depression. According to Beck, depression results from cognitive distortions involving a tendency to highlight negative information while ignoring positive information. In contrast, people who are free from depression engage in a form of cognitive distortion in which they emphasize positive information while overlooking negative information.

According to attribution theory, individuals attempt to explain the events that occur in their lives by “attributing” the cause to one of three dimensions: internal-external, stable-temporary, and global-specific. The internal-external dimension refers to whether an event was due to a person’s own actions or was the result of some external force. The stable-temporary dimension refers to whether the cause of a particular event is one that will remain stable across time or is more transient in nature. The global-specific dimension refers to whether the cause of an event is one that will affect many areas of a person’s life or only one particular area.

A pessimistic explanatory style involves attributing negative events to internal, stable, and global factors (e.g., “I failed my Spanish exam because I’m stupid”). In contrast, an optimistic explanatory style involves external, temporary, and specific causal attributions for negative events (e.g., “I failed my Spanish exam because my teacher did a poor job of explaining the material, I was having a bad day when I took the test, and I’m not particularly good at learning new languages”). Research has demonstrated that a pessimistic explanatory style is related to depressive symptoms and poorer physical health (e.g., suppressed immune function).

Individuals with an optimistic explanatory style often use problem-focused coping strategies that involve active attempts to cope with a problem by engaging in direct problem solving (e.g., dealing with the stress associated with an upcoming exam by studying in advance). In many cases, such an approach is highly adaptive. However, the use of problem-focused coping strategies may result in wasted effort when the problem is not subject to change or the individual does not have adequate resources to implement such change. An optimistic explanatory style works well during childhood, adolescence, and much of adulthood, but it may be mal-adaptive in later life when individuals often face circumstances that are less amenable to change (e.g., declining health and the death of loved ones). Emotion-focused coping, in which individuals attempt to regulate their emotions, may be more adap-tive than wasting time and energy on problem-solving attempts in such circumstances. It may be most adaptive for individuals to tailor their explanatory style to the particular event with which they are faced.

Defensive Pessimism and Strategic Optimism

An alternative view is that “strategic” optimism and “defensive” pessimism are strategies that can be used selectively to deal with specific situations rather than stable traits or styles. Defensive pessimism refers to a cognitive strategy of setting low expectations for some upcoming event, thereby preparing for and protecting oneself from potential failure. For instance, a job applicant who is anxious about an upcoming job interview might predict that he or she is going to be unable to respond to interview questions appropriately and come across as a “fool” during the interview, despite previous success in similar situations. Then, after considering all the things that could possibly go wrong, he or she plans carefully to prevent each feared event from occurring.

Strategic optimism refers to a strategy of setting high expectations that are consistent with self-perceptions and past experiences. This strategy avoids thoughts about possible negative outcomes associated with an upcoming task while preparing for the task. For instance, a person who has to deliver a formal speech would demonstrate strategic optimism by anticipating on the basis of past performance that he or she will do well and beginning to prepare for the speech at an appropriate time.

Development of Optimism and Pessimism

Although few studies have examined the genetic basis of optimism and pessimism, scholars generally provide heritability estimates of approximately .25 for these traits. Heritability estimates for other personality traits such as extraversion and neuroticism are typically higher. Some psychologists believe this implies that heredity exerts an indirect influence on optimism and pessimism. For example, optimism may be influenced by the genes for extraversion and pessimism by the genes for neuroticism. An alternative explanation is that genetic factors directly influence the likelihood of success or failure. These experiences, in turn, stimulate the development of an optimistic or pessimistic explanatory style.

Environmental experiences are indeed believed to influence the development of optimism and pessimism in several ways. Based on past experiences (i.e., success versus failure), children learn to expect future success or failure. Early experiences of helplessness, such as repeated exposure to violence or growing up in poverty, may also predispose children to become pessimistic. Parental modeling of expectations of success or failure and parental instruction in problem solving also are believed to influence the development of optimism and pessimism. In addition, children may internalize attributions for success and failure provided by their teachers and other important figures in their lives.

Results from longitudinal research studies demonstrate that even elementary-school-age children may display pessimistic explanatory styles. These children are more likely than their nonpessimistic peers to become depressed over time, particularly if they experience negative life events. Psychologists are working to develop interventions aimed at changing the pessimistic explanatory styles of at-risk children to prevent depression. These programs (which are based on Beck’s cognitive therapy approach) begin by introducing children to the link between thoughts and feelings. Children then learn to dispute their negative thoughts about the causes of events, and are encouraged to search for evidence for and against their beliefs and evaluate situations in a more realistic manner. The results of such programs appear to be promising.

Integrating Optimism and Pessimism Into Counseling Practice

Counseling psychologists use several approaches when helping clients modify their optimistic and pessimistic explanatory styles. Some view cognitive therapy as an effective form of treatment for depression precisely because it reduces pessimistic thinking. This approach focuses on decreasing negative thinking. Others use a variant of cognitive therapy in which interventions are aimed directly at decreasing the use of optimism-suppressing strategies and increasing the use of positive thinking.

Psychologists have a choice of a variety of interventions aimed at decreasing pessimism and/or increasing optimism. For instance, psychologists might choose one or more of the following approaches:

  • Help clients identify and modify their belief that optimistic thinking—such as “If I allow myself to feel confident, I will not prepare enough for the exam”— can be dangerous.
  • Use positive visualization, which involves having clients visualize challenges they are likely to face in pursuit of a particular goal. Clients are instructed to imagine coping successfully with each challenge as it arises, and to imagine eventually achieving a successful outcome.
  • Use invulnerability training to teach clients to imagine feeling good about how they handled a particular situation even when things did not turn out the way they had hoped.
  • Use the silver lining technique to encourage clients to identify at least one positive element associated with each negative experience they encounter.
  • Use pump priming to help clients spontaneously engage in optimistic thinking more frequently. For instance, a client who is instructed to spend 30 minutes each morning reading an article that discusses altruism might be more likely to recognize prosocial behaviors in others throughout the day. This, in turn, can lead to a more optimistic outlook throughout the day.
  • Have clients use an antipessimism sheet to record their responses to upcoming events (e.g., the “best,” the “worst,” and the “most likely” outcomes they can foresee). Later, the client and therapist discuss these responses, their relation to the actual outcome, and the impact of the optimistic, pessimistic, and realistic predictions on the outcome.
  • Have clients commit acts of kindness (e.g., donating blood, visiting an elderly relative) and practice grateful thinking (e.g., making note of friendships for which the client is thankful). When done in an intentional, focused manner, these actions may lead to increases in subjective well-being.

A few cautions should be observed in considering the preceding information. First, much of what is known about optimism and pessimism as they relate to well-being has been derived from work with Caucasian Americans. Research suggests that the influence of optimism and pessimism on mental health may be different for Asian Americans. There is some evidence that Asian Americans benefit more from interventions aimed at enhancing optimism, whereas Caucasian Americans benefit more from those aimed at reducing pessimism. Additionally, some authors have suggested that, rather than attempting to change either optimistic or pessimistic thinking in isolation, a more balanced approach aimed at helping the client to develop more realistic cognitions may be most beneficial. Finally, there may be times when an optimistic outlook can be disadvantageous, such as when the circumstances with which individuals are faced are due to factors beyond their control. Nonetheless, there appear to be a number of both physical and mental health benefits associated with optimism.


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