Explanatory Style of Optimists and Pessimists


Good Events Bad Events
Permanence Optimists: permanent
Pessimists: temporary
Optimists: temporary
Pessimists: permanent
Pervasive Optimists: universal
Pessimists: specific
Optimists: specific
Pessimists: universal
Personal Optimists: internal
Pessimists: external
Optimists: external
Pessimists: internal

If an optimist does well on a math test, she is likely to say something like: “That just proves that I’m a good student.” Note that she: presumes her skills and success are ongoing traits (permanent)
generalizes beyond math to being a good student in general (universal) attributes her success to her skills (internal)

A pessimist who does well on a math test is more likely to say something like: “I guess I got lucky on that math test.” Note that she: suggests her success was not characteristic (temporary)
does not generalize implications beyond that particular math test (specific) attributes her good scores to external, chance events (external).

When it comes to bad events, the same principles apply in reverse. An optimist who does poorly on a test is likely to say: “I’m a good student. I just had an off day and an unfair test.” Thus she views her poor performance as a fluke, an exception to her usual performance, and not her fault. The pessimist is likely to say: “That proves I’m stupid and will never pass this course (or worse yet will never graduate).”

Seligman does not have a category for importance (if sticking to his alliteration, you could call it Prominence). When good things happen, optimists tend to see them as important, for example, “Seeing that butterfly made my day.” When bad things happen, optimists tend to say, “It’s really not very important anyway.” Pessimists, on the other hand, discount the importance of positive events the way some people brush off a compliment about their clothes with an “Oh, this old thing,” and amplify the importance of negative events with thoughts such as “But I know there is a spot on it even if no one else sees it.” After all, many pessimists are also perfectionists.

Optimism is a very learnable skill. You might say it is learning to be a spin doctor for your own life.