Essay Optimism Vs Pessimism Study

Imagine you divided everyone in the world into two psychological groups. You put all the optimists on one side and all the pessimists on the other (let’s leave the realists aside for now).

Amongst the optimists the conversation would all be about fantastic plans for the future and how things can only get better.

Meanwhile the pessimists are having what might seem to the optimists like a depressing discussion. Far from working out how to make their dreams come true, they’re worrying about all the things that might go wrong. They’re worried that even the things they have will be taken away from them by some cruel twist of fate.

To the optimists, the pessimists seem too down on everything, always just a little too keen to pour cold water on any exciting plans.

To the pessimists, though, the optimists are out of touch with reality. Can’t they see what a nasty, cruel and accident-prone world we live in? They are deluding themselves!

Which is better?

Over the years psychologists have examined many aspects of pessimism and optimism. They’ve wondered whether there are more optimists or pessimists. And they’ve tried to find out which approach is ‘better’. Naturally both camps are fascinated to see which way this one goes.

In fact there’s good news for all. There are some advantages to optimism like it seems to make people feel better about life. But there are also advantages for pessimism in that thinking the worst helps some pessimists cope better with the world.

But we should be less concerned with which is ‘better’ or which camp is larger and more interested in why people see the world in such different ways in the first place.

After all, when an extreme optimist talks to an extreme pessimist, it’s like they come from two completely different worlds. How do people come to be polarized in this way?

What’s my motivation?

A clue comes from a new line of research into how both pessimists and optimists use their differing views of the world to motivate themselves.

We all know how difficult it is to predict what’s going to happen in the future. Life is always throwing us curveballs and most of us accept that our plans often don’t work out. It’s not that we’re doing anything wrong, just that life is unpredictable.

To cope with this unpredictability some of us choose to think optimistically because it helps motivate us to try, try again. For others a pessimistic mindset performs the same function. By thinking about what might go wrong it helps protect us against when things do go wrong.

In both cases what the optimistic and pessimistic standpoints are doing is working in service of motivation. Each provides a protective buffer against what Shakespeare called “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”.

Insight from anagrams

Evidence for this connection between motivation and optimism or pessimism was found in a new study by Abigail Hazlett and colleagues (Hazlett et al., 2011), published in Social Cognition.

In two initial studies optimists were found to have a ‘promotion focus’. In other words they preferred to think about how they could advance and grow. Pessimists, meanwhile, were more preoccupied with security and safety.

This suggested a connection with motivation, but we need a true experiment for stronger evidence. So, in their third study they had participants trying to solve anagrams. However they were split into two groups. While doing the anagrams half were encouraged to think optimistic thoughts and half pessimistic thoughts.

The researchers also measured participants’ natural tendencies towards either optimism or pessimism. This meant that some people would be using their preferred strategy and others would be forced to think against the grain.

What the results showed was that pessimists performed better when thinking in negative ways. At the same time optimists were more engaged with their task when they were thinking positive thoughts.

It also turned out that people’s performance depended on how persistent they were at trying to crack the anagrams. It seems that when the optimists were using their preferred positive thinking strategy, they were more persistent. And the same went for the pessimists, who were most successful when thinking negative thoughts.

Different strokes

What’s emerging, from studies like this, is that both optimism and pessimism have important roles to play in people’s lives.

Being optimistic allows people to pursue their goals in a positive way: to dream a bigger and better dream, which they can work their way towards. Optimists also seem to respond better to positive feedback, and part of being optimistic may be generating this feedback for themselves, i.e. thinking positive thoughts.

On the other hand being pessimistic may help people reduce their natural anxiety and to perform better. Also, pessimists seem to respond better to negative feedback. They like to hear what the problems were, so they can correct them. Again, part of why pessimists generate these sorts of negative thoughts is that it helps them perform better.

So it’s different strokes for different folks. Optimism and pessimism aren’t just accidents; this evidence suggests they are two different, but effective, strategies of coping with a complex and unpredictable world.

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Optimism vs Pessimism - It's Learned - Which Means You Can Change It!

People, generally, are not born with either an Optimistic or Pessimistic view of the world. It is learned behavior - learned either through experience or through other people telling us who we are: "You are a great runner, you are a winner, you are a loser, you are useless, you are not good at maths, you are a great musician etc."

The terms frequently used to describe this phenomenon are, Learned Helplessness and Learned Optimism. And the great news is, that because this behavior is Learned, it can be Unlearned.

Dr Martin Seligman, in his (awesome) book, Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life, shows that people can dramatically impact their sense of well being and optimism, career options and confidence levels, by changing the way they think. He shares many tips on how you can train yourself to develop a more optimistic vs pessimistic outlook - and with a bit of focus you'll find them fairly painless to practice.

Go to the Authentic Happiness website to take the Optimism vs Pessimism test to see where you rate on the Optimism vs Pessimism scale. (You will need to subscribe, but it's a safe site, and the test you want is called the Optimism Test)

Optimism vs Pessimism A Real Life Example
How Two Team Leaders Handled the Same Productivity Improvement Challenge

Several years ago, I worked with two Team Leaders from opposite shifts. And two very different ways of thinking, you are unlikely to come across! Talk about optimism vs pessimism - these guys were almost polar opposites.

There was a drive within the plant, to improve productivity by around 30%, and at the same time to decrease scrap rates by about 12%.

The Pessimist's response: "This is impossible, can't be done, why should we even try to achieve such ridiculous targets?" The Optimistic Team Leader's response "Hmm, going to be tough to get, but let's see what we can do". Talk about a classic optimism vs pessimism response!

Within about six months, the Optimist's team had taken significant strides toward achieving both goals, and they were talking about how they were going to celebrate when they did reach the targets. The Pessimist's team had made some improvements, but only minimal, morale had slipped even further, and they were accusing the optimist's team of all sorts of under-hand behavior. The Pessimist Team Leader had become very defensive about why his team hadn't achieved similar results.

I was asked to work closely with the Pessimistic Team Leader, to see if I could help him to achieve the targets. Because of his world-view - "things don't go well/it's all too hard etc". I decided the only area I would work on with him, was to help him to shift to a more Optimistic view point - technically he knew all he needed, to help his team to make the improvements the business wanted.

Each day, I would challenge him to look for the things that were going right, and reward himself and his team, I asked him to be aware of how he was responding to new ideas/challenges, and to start to look for reasons why something might work, rather than why it wouldn't work, and shouldn't bother trying.

The shift was slow, but as he became more focused on looking for the opportunities vs the obstacles, his behavior changed, and as his behavior changed so too did his, (and his team's), results.

One of the turning points for him, was when I shared with him information about how to control his self-talk so that it led him more to the thinking patterns of success, than of 'give-up-itis'!

There are times when having a pessimistic view is beneficial. For example, if you are driving in thick fog it might be good to be focused on the fact that a car could be coming in the opposite direction!

Many studies have found that pessimists were more accurate in their assessments than optimists. For example, in one test researchers had people pressing a switch to turn a light on and off. Even when they had no control over whether the light came on or off, optimists still rated themselves as having a high degree of control over the light. Whereas, pessimists accurately predicted how much, or little control, they did indeed had over the light coming on or off.

So, in business it can be good to have some pessimists attached to your team, as they will often have a much stronger handle on reality than the optimists. Of course, these two groups are likely to drive each other nuts! So you, the team leader, will need to help the two groups value the perspective each bring, and make sure the balance is right, between hopeless and done deal!

Optimism vs Pessimism - The Three Crucial Elements: Permanent, Pervasive, Personal

Martin Seligman defined three crucial elements in the thinking styles which differentiate pessimists from optimists.

When something bad happens pessimists automatically think that the cause is:

  • Permanent:"It's going to last forever"
  • Pervasive:"It's going to undermine everything"" and
  • Personal:"It's my fault - I have a weak character and no skills"

Optimists in contrast have a strength, that allows them to interpret their setbacks as easy to overcome, and sure to last a short period of time (i.e not permanent), particular to a specific problem (i.e. not pervasive) and resulting from temporary circumstances or other people - and little to do with their own character or skills (i.e. not personal).

So let's take a closer look at Permanence and Pervasiveness, as in workshops I've run with leaders, these are the two aspects that often generate the most discussion, and questions.


Optimism vs Pessimism: When Bad Things Happen

Let's take a look at how the thinking is different for the two types when bad 'stuff' happens.

Scenario The Pessimist Thinks ...
"It Is Permanent"
The Optimist Thinks ...
"It Is Temporary""
Your boss tells you that your performance is not up to par "I'm all washed up here, may as well look for a new job" "I'm just exhausted at the moment"
You overeat at a restaurant, while trying to lose weight "Diets never work" "Diets don't work when you eat out"

When we are unsuccessful at something we all become, at least momentarily, down in the dumps, and maybe come to a screeching stop. However, those people who are optimistic, will pick themselves up and bounce back, very quickly. In other words, they are fairly resilient. Whereas the more pessimistic people can remain stuck, or bearing a grudge, (even after only small setbacks), which could last for days or months. If something major happens to them, they may never bounce back and lapse into long-lasting helplessness.

So, if when something bad happens the pessimist thinks 'its forever', and the optimist thinks 'this too will pass', how do they react when good things happen?

Optimism vs Pessimism: When Good Things Happen

You guessed it. When good things happen the optimists ride that band wagon to the limit - they think this is how it's meant to be... this is going to keep on going! And, even more empowering, they also believe that it was because of their great traits, and capabilities, that this came about.

And the pessimist? Yep - the pessimist they go straight to 'this ain't gonna last' ... he or she just knows this is too good to be true, and it had little to do with their skills - maybe more to do with some sort of special circumstance or luck.

The thinking is something like this for good events

Scenario The Pessimist Thinks ...
"It Is Temporary"
The Optimist Thinks ...
"It Is Permanent"
Name is pulled out of a barrel to win a holiday "My lucky day" "I'm always lucky"
Receives an award for outstanding work "I did try hard" "I'm talented"

People who believe good events have permanent causes, will try harder the next time. People who see temporary reasons for good events, may give up even when they succeed ... believing it was a fluke.


So, now we've covered permanence, now lets move to pervasiveness. People pretty much fall into two boxes when it comes to setbacks, or successes. Those who globalize events, and those who isolate events. Some people, when something bad happens, let that one problem bleed all over the rest of their life. For example, a person loses their job and it affects their marriage, their relationships, their health etc.

Whereas others, can put their troubles into a box, and go about their lives even when one important aspect (their job, for example) is crumbling.

It comes down to this: people who make global explanations for their problems, give up on everything when a crash happens in one area. People who make specific explanations, may become helpless in that one area of their life, but get on with the rest.

Optimism vs Pessimism: When Bad Things Happen

The thinking is something like this for bad events

Scenario The Pessimist Makes It Global The Optimist Confines It To The Specific Event
Your manager takes credit for work you did "All bosses are unprincipled" "Jim is unprincipled"
You ask a girl to dance and she walks away, laughing with her friends "I'm ugly" "I'm ugly to her"

Optimism vs Pessimism: When Good Things Happen

And you guessed it again - when good things happen it all gets reversed! The optimist believes good events will enhance everything s/he does, while the pessimist believes good events are caused by specific factors

The thinking is something like this for good events

Scenario The Pessimist Confines It To The Specific Event The Optimist Takes It Global
You get an 'A' in your math exam "I'm smart at math" "I'm smart"
You get a promotion "I've did good work on that last project" "I am very good at what I do"

Optimists, who make permanent and pervasive explanations for good events, as well as temporary and specific explanations for bad events, bounce back from troubles briskly, and get on a roll easily, when they succeed once. Pessimists, who make permanent and pervasive explanations for setbacks, tend to collapse under pressure - both for a long time and across situations - and rarely get on a roll.

So how do we improve optimism and hope? We do this by disputing pessimistic thoughts. A method, developed by Dr Albert Ellis, called ABCDE model. (how simple is that!) is a terrifically easy-to-use model. In fact I've used it with teams, when they have hit a setback which looks like it might derail them.

Optimism vs Pessimism - it's over to you to decide which style of thinking you want to dominate your life. It's over to you to decide the results you want in your life. Best of luck!

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