What is an explanatory style and what does that have to do with optimism?
- Personalization – how much you describe an outcome to be caused by factors within yourself versus outside of yourself. Was success or failure a result of your abilities or was the outcome a result of external conditions? A simpler way of thinking about this involves asking the question, “me or not me?”.
- Permanence – how much you describe a situation to be permanent versus temporary. Will this outcome persist indefinitely or is there an end in sight? A simpler way of thinking about this involves asking the question, “always or not always?”.
- Pervasiveness – how much you describe an outcome to persist globally, across all areas of your life, versus locally, where the outcome is relevant to only a specific context or setting of the experience. A simpler way of thinking about this involves asking the question, “everything or not everything?”.
What is the difference between optimistic and pessimistic explanatory styles?
Optimistic and pessimistic explanatory styles differ in their description of the personalization, permanence and pervasiveness of positive and negative events. In general, optimistic thinkers take responsibility for positive outcomes or events (me), and think of positive situations as being more permanent (always) and pervasive (everything). On the other hand, pessimistic thinkers attribute positive events to luck or other external factors (not me) and believe that positive experiences are temporary (not always) and specific (not everything).
Optimistic and pessimistic explanatory styles reverse for negative situations. This means that optimistic thinkers attribute negative events or failure to external causes (not me) and see negative situations as more temporary (i.e. not always) and specific (not always). Pessimistic thinkers believe that negative events or failures are their fault (me) and often think of the negative situation as permanent (always) and pervasive (everything).
Let’s use an example to further understand these thinking styles. Consider two students, Jeffrey and Salim, who both complete an assignment for school and receive an ‘A’. In this scenario, Jeffrey has an optimistic explanatory style and Salim has a pessimistic explanatory style. When Jeffrey receives his marked assignment, he attributes his success to his own hard work and ability. He thinks of this assignment as evidence that he can be successful with anything he puts his mind to. Alternatively, when Salim receives his marked assignment, he thinks that he got lucky and that this is a one-off success that will not happen again. Two other students, Michaela and Shreya also completed the assignment but they didn’t do so well – they both received a ‘D’. Here, Michaela has an optimistic explanatory style and Shreya has a pessimistic explanatory style. When Michaela sees her mark, she thinks that she didn’t do so well because her neighbours were having a loud party on the night she was working on the assignment and she wasn’t able to concentrate. Michaela doesn’t think that the bad mark is a reflection of her abilities or knowledge, and she doesn’t think that this mark determines future grades or that it affects other areas of her life, like sports and music. Shreya, on the other hand, thinks of the bad mark as being her own fault and believes that it is a clear indicator of her incompetence for life.
The following table summarizes the difference between optimistic and pessimistic explanatory styles for good and bad situations:
How do explanatory styles affect health and wellbeing?
Can I learn to be optimistic?
Optimism is a thinking style that can be learned and developed. The idea of learned optimism stemmed from Dr. Seligman’s work on learned helplessness.
Learned helplessness “is a state that occurs after a person has experienced a stressful situation repeatedly. They come to believe that they are unable to control or change the situation, so they do not try – even when opportunities for change become available”.
Where can I learn more?
What will students learn?
By the end of this lesson, students will be able to…
- Understand and explain the three dimensions of explanatory style
- Recognize that optimism is not a character trait, but an explanatory style that they can adopt and learn
- Identify the differences between optimistic and pessimistic explanatory styles
- Connect their knowledge of neuroplasticity and growth mindset to understand learned optimism
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