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What is an explanatory style and what does that have to do with optimism?

Optimism and pessimism are commonly talked about as character traits. You’ve probably heard phrases like, “She’s so optimistic” or “He’s such a pessimist”, before. Unfortunately, the danger here is that people think about optimism and pessimism as fixed character traits; as something that they cannot control or change. In reality, optimism and pessimism are not character traits (who the person is) but are, instead, a way of thinking about and explaining the world. In psychology, an
explanatory style Houston, E. (2020, June 8). What Are Attributional and Explanatory Styles in Psychology?. PositivePsychology.com.
simply refers to “the way in which you explain your circumstances to yourself”. It is a habitual way of explaining the “why” behind good and bad events that happen.
Dr. Martin Seligman, Seligman, M. (1998). Learned Optimism. Pocket Books.
the founding father of positive psychology argues that “the basis of optimism does not lie in positive phrases or images of victory, but in the way you think about causes”.

There are three dimensions of explanatory styles: Internality versus externality, stability versus instability, and globality versus specificity. These dimensions can be more easily remembered as
The three P’s of explanatory style: Peterson, C. (1991). The Meaning and Measurement of Explanatory Style. Psychological Inquiry, 2(1), 1–10.


  1. 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?”.
  2. 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?”.
  3. 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:

Good Situation
Bad Situation
Optimistic Explanatory Style
Me
Always
Everything
Not Me
Not Always
Not Everything
Pessimistic Explanatory Style
Not Me
Not Always
Not Everything
Me
Always
Everything

How do explanatory styles affect health and wellbeing?

In the late 1980s
Melanie Burns and Martin Seligman Burns, M. O., & Seligman, M. E. (1989). Explanatory style across the life span: evidence for stability over 52 years. Journal of personality and social psychology, 56(3), 471–477.
analyzed explanatory styles across the lifestyle and found a clear relationship between explanatory style and wellbeing. In this study, thirty seniors (average age of 72) were questioned about their current life and asked to provide diaries, journal entries or letters written in their youth (average of 52 years earlier). By analyzing these diaries, journals, and letters for indicators of explanatory style,
Burns and Seligman Burns, M. O., & Seligman, M. E. (1989). Explanatory style across the life span: evidence for stability over 52 years. Journal of personality and social psychology, 56(3), 471–477.
found that individuals’ explanatory style for negative events persisted across the lifespan and, in the case of pessimistic explanatory styles, “constitute[d] an enduring risk factor for depression, low achievement, and physical illness”. Further studies have found that pessimistic explanatory styles also have immediate, short-term consequences on youth’s health and wellbeing: For children and adolescents, pessimistic explanatory styles predict symptoms of
depression Nolen Hoeksema, S., Seligman, M., & Girgus, J. (1986). Learned Helplessness in Children: A Longitudinal Study of Depression, Achievement, and Explanatory Style. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 51(2), 435.
and
anxiety, Bell-Dolan, D., & Wessler, A. (1994). Attributional style of anxious children: Extensions from cognitive theory and research on adult anxiety. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 8(1), 79–96.
as well as
lower academic achievement. Nolen Hoeksema, S., Seligman, M., & Girgus, J. (1986). Learned Helplessness in Children: A Longitudinal Study of Depression, Achievement, and Explanatory Style. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 51(2), 435.


Alternatively,
optimistic thinkers Seligman, M. (2006). Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. Vintage.
experience less distress than their “pessimistic counterparts” when they face challenges in life.
Optimistic thinkers Seligman, M. (2006). Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. Vintage.
are also less likely to suffer from depression and anxiety, more likely to report engaging in health-promoting behaviours, such as exercising or healthy eating, and generally adapt better to negative life events. Furthermore, adopting an
optimistic explanatory style Seligman, M. (2006). Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. Vintage.
is known to increase perseverance and enhances people’s ability to learn from their mistakes or past negative experiences. With respect to education, optimistic explanatory styles are associated with
higher academic achievement Gordeeva, T. O., & Osin, E. N (2011). Optimistic attributional style as a predictor of well-being and performance in different academic settings. In I. Brdar (Ed.), The human pursuit of well-being: A cultural approach (p. 159–174). Springer Science + Business Media.
for high school students and they
mediate the effect Gordeeva, T. O., & Osin, E. N (2011). Optimistic attributional style as a predictor of well-being and performance in different academic settings. In I. Brdar (Ed.), The human pursuit of well-being: A cultural approach (p. 159–174). Springer Science + Business Media.
of academic performance on self-esteem.

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.

In 1967,
Seligman and Maier Seligman, M. E., & Maier, S. F. (1967). Failure to escape traumatic shock. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 74(1), 1–9.
conducted a ground-breaking experiment, which suggested that helplessness was a learned behaviour. In this experiment, dogs were exposed to a series of electric shocks in one of two conditions: In the first condition, the dogs could press a lever to stop the shocks and in the second condition, the dogs were restrained in a harness so that they could not escape or control the electric shocks. Dogs that could not control the electric shocks began to exhibit signs of depression and anxiety. In a later experiment, all dogs were put in a different environment, where they could escape the shocks by jumping over a barrier. Seligman and Maier observed that the dogs that were unable to control the electric shocks in the first experiment did not attempt to avoid the shocks in the second experiment, despite the fact that they could have easily done so. This behaviour is seen in humans as well and is known as
“learned helplessness”. Legg, T. (2019, May 31). What is learned helplessness?. Medical News Today.
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”.
Thirty years later, Dr. Maier returned to this research after discovering that “the default position of the brain is to assume that
stress is not controllable”. Dingfelder, S. (2009). Old problem, new tools. American Psychological Association, 40(9), 40.
In other words, helplessness is the default position. Based on this knowledge,
Dr. Maier concluded Dingfelder, S. (2009). Old problem, new tools. American Psychological Association, 40(9), 40.
that the dogs from that experiment did NOT learn helplessness. Instead, they were failing to learn control. Dr. Seligman also revisited his research on learned helplessness and considered the following: In the initial experiment, about two-thirds of the dogs that did not have control over the electric shocks remained helpless in the second experiment, but one-third of the dogs were resilient and escaped the shocks in the second experiment.

This pattern, where some individuals resist the “helplessness conditioning” persisted throughout Seligman’s research with people and led him to wonder about the difference between those who “succumbed” to helplessness and those who resisted it.
The difference was optimism: Seligman, M. (2006). Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. Vintage.
People who used an optimistic explanatory style were able to resist the helplessness conditioning. This insight led Seligman to focus his efforts on conditioning optimism and gave birth to the theory of learned optimism, which states that it’s possible (and even necessary) to learn optimism.

Dr. Seligman proposed the ABCDE Model as a formal strategy to learn optimism. This model will be introduced in the next lesson. For now, focus on deepening your understanding of explanatory styles.


Where can I learn more?

Martin Seligman – Summary of the Book, Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life

Edutopia – Tips for Teaching Realistic Optimism

School Rubric – Helplessness & Optimism: How teachers can transform pessimists into optimists

Dr. Lance Luria – Learned Helplessness vs. Learned Optimism

Verywellmind – How learned optimism can improve your life

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
References
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Bell-Dolan, D., & Wessler, A. (1994). Attributional style of anxious children: Extensions from cognitive theory and research on adult anxiety. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 8(1), 79–96.

Burns, M. O., & Seligman, M. E. (1989). Explanatory style across the life span: evidence for stability over 52 years. Journal of personality and social psychology, 56(3), 471–477.

Dingfelder, S. (2009). Old problem, new tools. American Psychological Association, 40(9), 40.

Gordeeva, T. O., & Osin, E. N. (2011). Optimistic attributional style as a predictor of well-being and performance in different academic settings. In I. Brdar (Ed.), The human pursuit of well-being: A cultural approach (p. 159–174). Springer Science + Business Media.

Houston, E. (2020, June 8). What Are Attributional and Explanatory Styles in Psychology?. PositivePsychology.com.

Legg, T. (2019, May 31). What is learned helplessness?. Medical News Today.

Nolen Hoeksema, S., Seligman, M., & Girgus, J. (1986). Learned Helplessness in Children: A Longitudinal Study of Depression, Achievement, and Explanatory Style. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 51(2), 435.

Peterson, C. (1991). The Meaning and Measurement of Explanatory Style. Psychological Inquiry, 2(1), 1–10.

Seligman, M. (1998). Learned Optimism. Pocket Books.

Seligman, M. (2006). Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. Vintage.

Seligman, M. E., & Maier, S. F. (1967). Failure to escape traumatic shock. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 74(1), 1–9.

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