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Learned Optimism

Page history last edited by Chris Yeh 12 years, 6 months ago

Learned Optimism

By Martin Seligman


Learned Helplessness

When people or dogs are exposed to shocks they cannot control, they learn helplessness. They decide that nothing that they do matters, and even when they are transferred to an environment where they can escape their shocks, they simply give up.


On the other hand, when people or dogs are exposed to shocks that they can control, they learn efficacy, and escape more quickly when transferred to a different environment. They have been "inoculated" against helplessness.


However, 1/3 of the subjects who are exposed to uncontrollable shocks never become helpless. They never give up. And 1/10 of the control subjects who received no training shocks are helpless from the start.


Explanatory Style

Whether or not you're are vulnerable to helplessness depends on the way you explain things to yourself.


  • Do you believe that bad events are permanent or temporary? What about good events?
    • Permanent: Traits, abilities, "always"
    • Transient: Moods, effort, "sometimes"
  • Failure makes everyone at least momentarily helpless. But how quickly do you recover? For some people, it is near instantaneous. Others may never recover.
  • People who believe that good events have permanent causes try even harder after they succeed. People who believe that good events have transient causes give up even when they succeed, believing success to be a fluke.

Pervasiveness: Specific vs. Universal

  • People who make universal explanations for their failures give up on everything when a failure strikes in one area. People who make specific explanations may become helpless in that one area, but not in any others.
  • Optimists believe that bad events have specific causes and are compartmentalized, and that good events enhance everything they do. Pessimists believe that bad events have universal causes, and good events have specific factors.


  • Finding temporary and specific causes for misfortune is the art of hope; finding permanent and universal causes is the practice of despair.

Personalization: Internalize vs. Externalize

  • People who blame themselves have low self-esteem as a result. People who blame external events preserve their self-esteem and like themselves better.
  • Optimists internalize good events and externalize bad events. Pessimists do the opposite.

My Explanatory Style

  • My explanatory style is extremely optimistic; of the 48 questions, I was only 3-4 answers away from perfect optimism.



The Depression Epidemic

  • Several studies have shown that the prevalence of depression has risen an order of magnitude during the 20th Century. People born before WWI had a 1% chance of being depressed at some point in their life. People born around 1925 had a 4% chance. And people born around 1955 had a 6% chance. This is even worse, because the older people had lived more years in which they could have become depressed.
  • Not only is severe depression more common, it also strikes at an earlier age
  • It appears that the cause of depression is the same as the cause of learned helplessness: the belief that your actions will be futile.

Depression and Explanatory Style

  • Women are twice as likely to suffer depression as men because they think differently. Men tend to act rather than reflect. Women tend to contemplate their depression, trying to analyze it and determine its source. This rumination, coupled with pessimism, leads to depression.
    • This may also help explain the depression epidemic, as we live in a society obsessed with self-consciousness.
    • Susan Nolen-Hoeksma of Stanford did an experiment. Sad people were given a choice between selecting words that decribed their mood or ranking a list of nations based on their wealth. 70% of women chose to focus on their mood. 70% of men chose the distracting geographic test.

Curing Depression

  • Cognitive therapy works
    • You learn to recognize the automatic thoughts that pop into your head at the times you feel worst
    • You learn to dispute your automatic thoughts by marshaling contrary evidence
    • You learn to make different explanations, called reattributions, and use them to dispute your automatic thoughts
    • You learn how to distract yourself from depresing thoughts.
    • You learn to recognize and question the depression-sowing assumptions governing so much of what you do


Optimism in the workplace

  • For a challenging job, there are three prerequisites of success
    • Aptitude
    • Motivation
    • Optimism

The case against pessimism

  • Promotes depression
  • Produces inertia rather than activity in the face of setbacks
  • Feels bad subjectively--blue, down worried, anxious
  • Self-fulling; pessimists don't persist in the face of challenges and thus fail more frequently (even when success is attainable)
  • Is associated with poor physical health
  • Even when pessimists turn out to be right, they still feel worse than the deluded optimists.

The Met Life Study on Salesforce Hiring

  • The more optimistic half of agents studied sold 37% more than the pessimistic half
  • The most optimistic 10% sold 88% more than the most pessimistic 10%
  • The pessimistic half was 2x as likely to quit in the 1st year
  • The most pessimistic quarter was 3x as likely to quit in the 1st year
  • As an experiment, Met Life hired 129 optimists who had narrowly failed the qualifying test. These optimists did just as well as optimists who had passed the test.

Why does pessimism exist?

  • Pessimists are sadder but more realistic. Optimists distort reality in a self-serving direction and pessimists tend to see reality accurately.
    • Depressed people more accurately judge how much control they have. Optimists overestimate their control, particularly when they are helpless and have no control at all
    • Optimists wildly overestimate their abilities; 80% of American men think that they are above average in social skills
    • In laboratory tests which are rigged that that they get 20 questions right and 20 questions wrong, pessimists report getting 21 right. Optimists report getting 28 right.

Pessimism and body cycles

  • In the late morning and early evening, we are more optimistic. In the late afternoon and the middle of the night, we are more pessimistic.


Children and Optimism

  • Pre-pubescent children are extremely optimistic, with a capacity for hope and an immunity to hopelessness they will never again possess after puberty.
  • Up until puberty, girls are more optimistic than boys
  • Children's explanatory style is enormously lopsided; even depressed children are about as optimistic as the average non-depressed adult
  • Children do get depressed about as much as adults, but they do not get hopeless, and they do not commit suicide. Children younger than 7 never commit suicide, even though children as young as 5 commit homicide.

Explanatory style

  • The three factors that shape explanatory style are:
    • The form of the everyday causal analyses he hears from parents, especially mothers
    • The form of criticism he hears when he fails (if permanent and pervasive, he'll turn to pessimism)
    • Early losses and traumas. If they remit, he will learn that bad things can be changed and conquered. If they are permanent and pervasive, the seeds of hopelessness will be planted.


  • Explanatory style tends to be set early; by the third grade, you'll determine whether you're an optimist or a pessimist.
  • Children adopt their mother's explanatory style. Their father's explanatory style has no effect (this is probably a product of mothers typically being the primary caregiver).


  • Carol Dweck's studies showed that girls and boy hear very different explanations in their teacher's criticisms. Because the girls tend to be well-behaved and the boys don't, when failure occurs, girls tend to get more permanent and pervasive explanations, whereas boys are blamed for poor behavior (which is temporary and specific).
  • When given impossible problems to solve, the two sexes gave very different explanations
    • Girls: "I'm not very good at word games." "I guess I'm not that bright."
    • Boys: "I wasn't paying attention." "Who cares about your lousy puzzles anyways?"

Childhood crisis

  • Our childhood crises may set our explanatory style
    • Girls whose families experienced but recovered from the Great Depression tended to be optimists. Girls whose families didn't recover learned helplessness and became pessimists. This difference could still be detected in the pessimism levels of their daughters, 40 years later.

The London study

  • George Brown studied the housewives of the poorest areas of London
    • 20% were depressed, 10% psychotically
    • He found three protective factors that fought off depression
      • Intimate relationship with a spouse or lover
      • A job outside the home
      • NOT having three or more children under the age of 14 to take care of
    • He found two major risk factors
      • Recent loss (e.g. death of a husband, son emigrating to another country)
      • Death of their own mother before the subject reached her teens
        • "If your mother dies when you are young, you think about later losses in the most hopeless ways."


Sidebar: CAVE

  • Content Analysis of Verbatim Explanations
  • Take the verbatim written statements of the subject (e.g. quotes from local sports coverage of an athlete) and rate them on permanence, pervasiveness, and personalization.


Optimism at school

The Princeton-Penn Longitudinal Study (400 children)

  • 3rd grade pessimists either got depressed or stayed depressed (if already depressed)
  • 3rd grade optimists either never got depressed, or recovered quickly


  • A brother or sister leaves home for college or work
  • A pet dies
  • A grandparent the child knows well dies
  • The child moves to a new school
  • The parents fight/divorce (the #1 problem for kids)


  • Children of divorce tend to be much more depressed
  • More bad things happen to them than children of intact families--even things that can't be explained by the divorce
    • 3.5x chance that a sibling will be hospitalized
    • 3.5x chance that the child will be hospitalized
    • 2x chance that a friend of the child will die
    • 2x chance that a grandparent will die
  • Alas, parents who fight a lot but don't get divorced cause nearly as many problems.

Girls vs. Boys

  • At every point in the study (3rd-7th grade), boys are more depressed than girls, and girls are more optimistic

The UPenn Frosh Study

  • Optmists rose to the occasion and performed as well as or better than predicted. Pessimists were more likely to underperform

The West Point Study

  • Pessimists were far more likely to quit, and get worse grades than their SATs predict


Optimism in Sports

Team Sports

  • The 85/86 Mets and Cardinals
    • The Mets were the most optimistic team in the NL (or the the one least likely to admit fault). The Cardinals were the 4th most pessimistic.
    • The next season, the Mets won the World Series and the Cardinals fell apart
  • Optimistic teams show better pressure batting stats the following season
  • Optimistic teams win more games the following season than their previous W-L record would predict
  • The NBA: Atlantic Division, 84/85
    • "The Celtics sound like manic patients. Bad events were always explained away as tempory, specific, and not their fault."
      • The Celtics beat the spread in games following a loss 68% of the time in 84 and 81% of the time in 85 (they beat the spread 52% and 47% respectively in games following a win).
    • The Nets were pessimists, despite a winning record
      • The Nets beat the spread only 38% of the time following a loss, though they beat the spread 49% of the time after a win. After changing personnel and becoming a more optimistic team, they beat the spread 62% of the time.

Conclusions on team sports

  • Teams have an explanatory style
  • Explanatory style predicts results above and beyond ability
  • Optimism leads to success and pessimism to failure
  • Explanatory style has its effect on teams under pressure--after a loss, or in the late innings of close games.

Individual Sports

  • The Berkeley swim team, including Matt Biondi, was tested under lab conditions. The coaches would tell the athletes that they had swum the event worse than they actually had (very disappointing, but difficult to detect)
    • Matt Biondi swam the 100 fly in 50.2 seconds, and was told he swam it in 51.7. Surprised and disappointed, he awm it again a few minutes later, and swam it in 50.0 seconds. He got faster after defeat.
    • Overall, optimists either maintained or improved performance after disappointment. Pessimists deteriorated by 2 seconds in a 100-yard event--the difference between first place and dead last.


Optimism and Health

  • Nursing home residents who have more choice and control are more active, happier, and less likely to die.
  • Madelon Visintainer's rat sarcoma study
    • Injected rats with tumor cells so that there was a 50% chance of life or death
      • 50% of control rats (no shocks) lived
      • 70% of rats with controllable shocks lived
      • 27% of rats with uncontrollable shocks lived
    • These results held even if the tumor was implanted long after the shocks--childhood mastery could immunize the rats against cancer.


  • Learned helplessness weakens the immune system--T-cells no longer multiply rapidly and NK cells lose their ability to kill foreign invaders.
  • Optimists are better at seeking and sticking to medical advice. Pessimists have more trouble quitting smoking, and get sick more often
  • Optimists suffer fewer life traumas, which make us vulnerable to illness
  • Optimists have better social support
    • Middle-aged people with at least one good friend have much better health than the friendless
    • Unmarried people are at a higher risk of depression
    • People who isolate themselves when sick tend to get sicker
  • Pessimistic college students have twice as many infectious illnesses and make twice as many doctor visits as optimists
  • Optimists tended to avoid recurrences of breast cancer. Even if the cancer recurred, optimists survived longer.

The Grant Study (200 men from the Harvard classes of 1939-1944, selected for fitness and intellect)

  • "These men experienced just about the same rate of heartbreak and mortal shock as men who were born at the same time in the inner city."
  • Men who used "mature defenses" (humor, altruism, sublimation) went on to have much more successful and healthy lives. At age 60, none were chronically ill, versus 1/3 for men with "immature defenses" (denial, projection).
  • Before 45, optimism has no effect on health. But as the body declines, optimism becomes the primary determinant of health.

Curing cancer

  • Cognitive therapy dramatically raised killer cell activity in cancer patients.


Politics, Religion, and Culture

  • From 1948 to 1984, the more optimistic candidate won 9 out of 10 presidential elections. The one exception was Nixon in 1968, where Humphrey's campaign was marred by riots at the Democratic National Convention
  • A pessimist is likely to make fewer campaign stops (confirmed by the research), be less well-liked, and engender less hope.
  • From 1900 to 1944, the more optimistic candidate won 9 of 12 elections--the main exception was three-time candidate FDR, whose pessimistic speeches reflected the grim times.
  • In the 1988 election, CAVE analysis correctly predicted 86% of Senate races, including all but one upset.
  • A comparison of the secular and non-secular writings of Russian Jews and Russian Orthodox showed that the Jews were much more optimistic in their religious writings. Perhaps this optimism had some effect on their likelihood to emigrate.


Changing from Pessimism to Optimism

When to use Optimism

  • If you are in an achievement situation (e.g. selling, writing a book)
  • If you are concerned about how you will feel
  • If the situation is likely to be protracted, and your physical health is an issue
  • If you want to lead, inspire, or win votes

When to use Pessimism

  • If your goal is to plan for a risky and uncertain future
  • If your goal is to counsel others whose future is dim, do not use optimism initially
  • If you want to appear sympathetic, don't start with optimism, though using it later once confidence and empathy are established will help

If the cost of failure is high, optimism is the wrong strategy.

The ABCDE Model


  • A = Adversity
  • B = Belief
  • C = Consequences
  • D = Disputation
  • E = Energization


  • The objective description of what happened (not your interpretation of it)


  • Your beliefs are how you interpret the adversity.
  • Be sure to separate thoughts from feelings (feelings are Consequences)
    • You can check the accuracy of thoughts; you can't check the accuracy of feelings--if you feel sad, you are sad


  • Your feelings, and what you did.
    • Often you will feel more than one thing
    • Write down as many as you are aware of
  • What did you do then?


  • There are two ways to deal with pessimistic beliefs--distraction and disputation
    • Distraction
      • There are several simple but effective thought-stopping techniques
        • Ringing a loud bell
        • Carry a 3x5 card with the word STOP on it
        • Wear a rubber band around your wrist and snap it hard
      • To keep your thoughts from returning to a negative belief, direct your attention elsewhere
        • Concentrate on a small object with all your focus
      • When adversity strikes, schedule some time--later--for thinking things over
      • Write the troublesome thoughts down the moment they occur
    • Disputation
      • A deeper, more lasting remedy for disturbing beliefs is to dispute them. Go on the attack.
      • It's easy to distance oneself from the accusations of others, but when we launch the attack ourselves, we assume it must be true. Wrong!
The 4 Disputation Techniques
  • Evidence
    • Show that the negative belief is factually incorrect. Ask, "What is the evidence for this belief?"
      • Unlike positive thinking, which consists of trying to believe upbeat statements in the absence of evidence, learned optimism is about accuracy
      • Repeating positive statements doesn't raise mood or achievement; it's how you cope with negative statements that has effect ("the power of non-negative thinking")
      • Most people catastrophize--they select the potential cause with the direst implications--you can easily dispute this by pointing to the distortions in this
  • Alternatives
    • Most events have many causes. Pessimists latch on to the worst possible cause.
    • To generate alternative explanations, focus on changeable, specific, non-personal causes
  • Implications

**Sometimes, the negative belief is correct. If that's the case, you can still de-catastrophize.

      • "Even if my belief is correct, what are it's real implications?"
      • You can then repeat the search for evidence
  • Usefulness
    • Sometimes, the consequences of holding a belief matter more than the truth of that belief
      • E.g. Your belief that life isn't fair is true, but doesn't do much for you
    • If a belief isn't useful, try distraction, or look to the future. "Is the situation changeable? How can I go about changing it?"

Practice the ABCDE technique with a friend or spouse providing the negative criticism to challenge you.


Helping your child escape pessimism

  • Let your child fill out the ABC portion, then help him dispute the consequences
    • Identify the cause behind the consequence. Then use Evidence, Alternatives, Implications, and Usefulness.
  • When using externalization of voices, you may want to use a puppet rather than attaching your child directly


The Optimistic Organization

The Three Edges of Optimism

1) Select optimistic employees

2) Place employees in the right roles

Optimistic Jobs: Require persistence, initiative, bring frequent frustration, rejection, and defeat.
  • Sales
  • PR
  • Presenting and Acting
  • Fundraising
  • Creative jobs
  • Highly competitive jobs
  • High-burnout jobs
Pessimistic Jobs: Require a pronounced sense of reality. Low-defeat jobs, low turnover, low-pressure. Jobs that need people who know when not to charge ahead and to err on the side of caution.
  • Design and safety engineering
  • Technical and cost estimating
  • Contract negotiation
  • Financial control and accounting
  • Law (but not litigation)
  • Business administration
  • Statistics
  • Technical Writing
  • Quality control
  • Industrial-relations management

3) Learning Optimism

  • You can apply the same ABCDE technique
  • The focus is on getting past your personal "wall", the part of your work that most makes you want to give up (e.g. cold-calling).
    • E.g. Write up an ABC report for each of 10 cold calls. Analyze the pessimism in your statements
      • Now do it again, but this time, dispute the consequences, and write down the energization and feelings that ensue


Flexible Optimism

Why Has Depression Increased?

The Waxing of the Self

  • We are now a culture of maximal selves, with endless choices, obsessed with our own feelings (versus the old-fashioned minimal self, which was less concerned with feelings and more concerned with duty).
  • This might not have been harmful, except that it coincided with a diminished sense of community and a loss of higher purpose

The Waning of the Commons

  • The erosion of belief in nation coincided with a breakdown of the family and a decline in the belief in God.
  • Individuals no longer have a safety net to prevent helplessness from becoming hopelessness (the tight-knit Kaluli tribesmen of New Guinea do not have depression)
  • Extreme individualism tends to maximize the pessimistic explanatory style, since there is little else to attribute failures to than the self. And without the consolation of religion, individual failure seems permanent and catastrophic.
  • "In order to shed depression and attain meaning, we will rashly surrender the newly won freedoms that individualism brings, giving up personal control and concern for the individual. The 20th century is riddled with disastrous examples of societies that have done just this to cure their ills. The current yearning for fundamentalist religion throughout the world appears to be such a response."

The Strengths of the Maximal Self

  • Perhaps we can retain our belief in the importance of the individual, but diminish our preoccupation with our own comfort and discomfort
    • The answer may be the moral equivalent of jogging
      • Set aside and personally give away 5% of your income. Advertise that you're giving the money away, interview prospective grantees, give the money, and follow its use to a successful conclusion
      • Give up some activity you do for your own pleasure (roughly one evening per week) and spend this time in an activity devoted to the well-being of others or the community.
      • When asked by a homeless person for money, talk to him. If he will use the money nondestructively, give him at least $10.
      • When you read of particularly heroic or despicable acts, write letters to them. Follow up with letter to politicians and others who can act directly.
      • Teach your children how to give things away
    • Experienced volunteers report that a major surprise for them is the lift they derive from their work. They discover that the poor and sick are not monster but very human beings; that modest heroism among the afflicted is the rule rather than the exception; that while what they see as volunteers may sadden them, it does not depress them; and that quite often they are deeply moved. It is liberating to see firsthand that among the theoretically helpless there is frequently an amazing degree of master, spiritual and psychological.
  • One of the great bulwarks of the maximal self is that it believes the self can change the way it thinks. We can learn optimism.
    • Learned optimism alone will not stem the tide of depression; optimism is just a useful adjunct to wisdom. By itself, it cannot provide meaning. Optimism is a tool to help the individual achieve the goals he has set for himself. It is in the choice of the goals themselves that meaning--or emptines--resides. When learned optimism is coupled with a renewed commitment to the commons, our epidemic of depression and meaninglessness may end.


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