Start this activity with a “diagnostic test”, or self-evaluation exercise that asks students to reflect on their explanatory styles for positive and negative events. Give each student a copy of the explanatory style questionnaire and ask them to independently complete the activity. Encourage students to be honest, informing them that no one will see their answers. This questionnaire consists of two short-answer and six multiple choice questions. It should not take longer than 6-8 minutes to complete.
Optimistic vs. Pessimistic Explanatory Style Questionnaire available in downloads section.
Once students are done, let them know that this questionnaire was an assessment of explanatory style. Based on the questions in the survey, ask if any students want to try defining what an explanatory style is, before explaining that an explanatory style is the way in which you explain your circumstances to yourself. Then, teach students about the three dimensions of explanatory styles – personalization, permanence, and pervasiveness – referring to the questionnaire for support. For both the negative and positive events that students identified in the questionnaire:
- Question 1 addresses personalization – how much the student describes an outcome to be caused by factors within themselves or outside of themselves. Students can ask themselves, “Was the success or failure a result of my abilities or was the outcome a result of external conditions?”. Alternatively, students can ask a simpler question: “Me or not me?”. Option ‘a’ represents the answer “me” and Option ‘b’ is the answer “not me”.
- Question 2 addresses pervasiveness – how much the student describes an outcome to persist globally, across all areas of their life, or locally, where the outcome is relevant only to a specific context or setting of the experience. Students can ask themselves the question, “Everything or not everything?”. Option ‘a’ represents the answer “everything” and Option ‘b’ is the answer “not everything”.
- Question 3 addresses permanence – how much the student describes a situation as being permanent or temporary. Students can ask themselves “Will this outcome persist indefinitely or is there an end in sight?”. Alternatively, students can ask a simpler question: “Always or not always?”. Option ‘a’ represents the answer “always” and Option ‘b’ is the answer “not always”.
Finally, summarize this information by saying that an explanation of any event can be assessed by these three dimensions: personalization, pervasiveness, and permanence. Now, inform students that there are two types of explanatory styles - optimistic and pessimistic - and that these explanatory styles differ in all three dimensions. Using example scenarios and guided questions, help students identify the distinctions between optimistic and pessimistic explanatory styles across all three dimensions, and for both positive and negative events.
Start with the pessimistic explanatory style and a negative event, using the following prompt:
Sally just got a Science test back and she did not do good! Sally is a pessimistic thinker. How might Sally be thinking about this situation?
For each of the three P’s, call on a new student to consider how Sally might be thinking about the situation and ask them to explain their reasoning. Help students conclude that, as a pessimistic thinker, Sally will think that the bad grade is her own fault (me), that it will result in negative events in other areas of her life (everything) and that she is bound to have an unsuccessful future (always).
Now, ask students to consider the same situation, but with an optimistic thinker.
Harrison just got a Science test back and he did not do good! Harrison is an optimistic thinker. How might Harrison be thinking about this situation?
For each of the three P’s, call on a new student to consider how Harrison might be thinking about the situation and ask them to explain their reasoning. Help students conclude that, as an optimistic thinker, Harrison will attribute the bad grade to factors that are out of his control or to factors that are within his control and that he will change (not me). Harrison will also think that the bad grade is specific to this one situation (not everything) and that it does not determine his future success (not always).
Now, repeat this exercise with a positive event and a pessimistic thinking style:
Griffin just heard that he made the school soccer team! Griffin is a pessimistic thinker. How might Griffin be thinking about this situation?
Again, for each of the three P’s, ask a new student to consider how Griffin might be thinking about the situation and get them to explain their reasoning. Help students conclude that, as a pessimistic thinker, Griffin will think that making it into the soccer team was pure luck or random chance (not me), that this positive event is specific to the situation (not everything), and that it doesn’t mean anything about his ability to do good things in the future (not always).
Finally, ask students to consider how an optimistic thinker might approach the same situation:
Mathilda just heard that she made the school soccer team! Mathilda is an optimistic thinker. How might Mathilda be thinking about this situation?
For each of the three P’s, different students should be able to conclude and explain that, as an optimistic thinker, Mathilda will attribute her success to her abilities and hard work leading up to the tryouts (me), and use her success as evidence that she can successful in other areas of her life as long as she work hard she works hard (everything). Finally, Mathilda’s success will contribute to her belief that she can do anything that she sets her mind to (always).
Now that you have described optimistic and pessimistic explanatory styles for positive and negative events, point out that optimistic and pessimistic explanatory styles are opposites. What this means is that optimistic thinkers approach positive situations in the same way the pessimistic thinkers approach negative situations and vice versa. Share the summary chart with students to reinforce this idea. Then, give students 2-minutes to consider their answers to the Questionnaire and reflect on their tendency to use an optimistic versus pessimistic explanatory style for positive and negative life events.
Conclude this lesson with a persuasive writing assignment. For this assignment students will be asked to use their knowledge of neuroplasticity and growth mindset to make an argument about whether they think that it’s possible to choose optimism and to learn how to be optimistic.
Choosing Optimism Worksheet available in downloads section.
Isn’t it unrealistic to be optimistic?
Optimism is not about always seeing sunshine and rainbows. Contrary to what some people think, optimists don’t ignore problems or pretend that life is perfect. Instead, optimistic thinkers choose to focus on things that are in their control and what they can do to make things better. The “best” kind of optimism is called “realistic optimism”. This happens when optimism is coupled with reality and it strikes a healthy balance between positive and realistic thinking.
Is there a place for pessimism?
In most cases, pessimism is not beneficial. However, researchers have identified what they called “defensive pessimism” and there is some evidence that this type of pessimism can have benefits for highly anxious people. Defensive pessimism describes the tendency to think of and plan for bad situations. People who tend towards defensive pessimism try to prepare themselves for any circumstance and set lower expectations for their performance or experiences. Although this is not ideal, people who use defensive pessimism tend to “be more anxious and deliver poorer performance if they are ‘not allowed’ to engage in pessimistic rehearsal”. Furthermore, compared to equally anxious students who do not use defensive pessimism, students using defensive pessimism have been found to show “significant increases in self-esteem and satisfaction over time, perform better academically, form more supportive friendship networks and make more progress on their personal goals”.