Motivation and emotion/Book/2021/Optimism and pessimism

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Optimism and pessimism:
Are optimism and pessimism opposite ends of a single continuum or two different constructs?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Figure 1. A simplistic representation of the general differences between an optimist, a pessimist, and a 'peptimist' (a portmanteau coined in 1922, combining pessimism and optimism respectively)[1].

Optimism and pessimism have traditionally been described as two psychological dimensions which exist on two poles. At one end, optimism, which represents a positive bias in perception and expectations. While the other pole, a negative bias. This has been the case within Western philosophical thought for more than 200 years.[2] This is best explored in prevalent 17th to 19th century philosophical thought. Most prolific among namely René Descartes, and Arthur Schopenhauer who contend that optimism and pessimism are competing, antithetical positions.[3] Both optimism and pessimism, treated separately, are subject to intense interest within psychological research. For instance, there have been many examinations of optimism and pessimism as an index of emotional adjustment.[4][5] Moreover, several researchers have investigated the utility of optimism as an adaptive coping behaviour [6][7]. With similar relation, pessimism has been studied in its use as a maladaptive coping behaviour.[7] On a similar level, pessimism has been studied extensively in relation to it’s connection with depression.[8][9] More recently, explanatory styles of pessimism have been studied in reference to their predictive tendencies for poor health.[10][11]

As research progressed regarding the impact of optimism and pessimism upon individual psychology, it has become increasingly evident that the traits may not be bipolar. Some researchers contend that differences between the two traits are simply due to issue of methodology. In contrast, other researchers indicate that optimism and pessimism operate as two independent constructs due to substantiative differences. This akin to masculinity and femininity.[12] Once thought to be bipolar but are separate though related phenomena.[13][14] These differences between optimism and pessimism are supported by both genetic, and confirmatory modelling. As a result of these differences, it has been recommended that optimism and pessimism exist upon a two-dimensional model, rather than a one-dimensional one. This mainly to account for the inherent value that optimism and pessimism share in the determination of individual outcomes. This would have serious implications for psychological theory, as well as for future clinical practice.

Terminology[edit | edit source]

Optimism[edit | edit source]

The English term 'optimism', is a French loan word from ‘optimisme’, of which is derived from the Latin ‘optimum’, simply meaning 'best'.[15] In this sense, optimism is a dispositional attitude that the world, or more accurately, an individual’s world view interprets situations and events as being the best they can be.[16] Using the proverb of "Is the glass half empty or half full?", an optimist would see the glass as half full. Broadly, optimism can be characterised as positive thinking. It is for this reason that some believe that optimism, as a characteristic trait, fosters the individuals resilience to stressors.[17]

Figure 2. 'An optimist and a pessimist', Vladimir Makovsky, 1893

Within the scope of psychology, the individual trait of optimism is generally referred to as dispositional optimism. dispositional optimism refers to an individual trait, characterised by persistent prevailing optimism. Optimism can be evaluated in several manners. One such measure is the Life Orientation Test (LOT) – an eight-item scale developed by Michael Scheier and Charles Carver in 1985.[6][18]

Pessimism[edit | edit source]

The English term ‘Pessimism ‘, is a French loan word from ‘pessimisme’. This in turn is developed from the Latin phrase ‘pessimus’, which means “worst”. In this sense, much like the definition of optimism, pessimism is the converse negative dispositional worldview.[19] Again following the proverb of "Is the glass half empty or half full?", a pessimist would, generally speaking, see the glass as half empty . Studies regarding pessimism have shown continuous parallels with mood disorders, primarily depression.

Pessimism, within the field of psychology, generally, is a prevailing, persistent characteristic trait. In this sense, pessimism can be considered a dispositional trait, influencing the overall mindset of an individual. Dispositional pessimism is best characterised as a mindset that things will turn out negatively.[20] Dispositional pessimism in this sense can therefore be conflated with a sense of helplessness. Broadly speaking, dispositional pessimism has been associated with negative cognitive conditions within individuals. Dispositional pessimism can be evaluated and measured in several ways. The primary method is, similarly, the Life Orientation Test (LOT) developed by Michael Scheier and Charles Carver in 1985.[6][18]

Defining optimism and pessimism[edit | edit source]

With these definitions provided, herein lies the first major obstacle in claiming that optimism and pessimism exist on the same continuum. As mentioned, both dispositional optimism and pessimism can be operationalised in multiple ways. Due to this, there is no accepted definition of both optimism and pessimism within the psychological community [21][22].  The most generalised operational use of optimism and pessimism, as previously shared, comes from Michael F Scheier and Charles S Carver. This popular view contends that optimism and pessimism are general positive and negative individual expectancies.[6] Michael F Scheier and Charles S Carver continued to utilise their operational definition for the basis of the Life Orientation Test (LOT). This, utilising specific measures to assess cognitive process. [6]

Conversely, other researchers have adopted a much wider definition of optimism and pessimism.[21] Most notably William N Dember et al., who defined optimism and pessimism on the basis of future-orientation. [12] Broadly speaking, William N Dember et al., utilised the definition of optimism and pessimism as a positive or negative outlook on life.[21] In comparison to the definition set by Michael F Scheier and Charles S Carver, optimism and pessimism includes the assessment of the future, as well as contemporary perceptions and appraisals.[6][21] On the basis of their broader definition, William N Dember et al. developed the Optimism and Pessimism Scale (OPS).[12]

Consequentially, this has meant that measures of optimism and pessimism are not likewise measuring the same cognitive processes.[21] As such, it is difficult to correctly interpret data provided by researchers studying optimism and pessimism within individuals. This in turn requires a reader to be cautious of empirical findings as they’re using different measures.[21] This impacts the relativity of optimism and pessimism toward each other as it indicates that future research and models must be precise in their conceptualisation.[12] Moreover, it calls into the question the validity of models, and research which seek to measure and quantify levels of optimism or pessimism with individual correlations. This fundamental flaw in doctrine, undermines the concept of optimism and pessimism as individual traits being related in any degree. Due to this there has been some difficulty in accurately discussing whether optimism and pessimism are interrelated, or different constructs. This issue should be taken into primary consideration when moving forward.

Figure 3.A diagram illustrating the effects of genetic and the environment upon neuroticism, optimism, and pessimism respectively.

The dimensionality of optimism and pessimism[edit | edit source]

The second major issues facing the conceptualisation of optimism and pessimism is the controversy regarding the dimensionality of the traits. This flaw persists beyond the issue of standardisation, being found within most operationalised definitions of optimism and pessimism. The aforementioned dominant view of optimism and pessimism provided by Michael F Scheier and Charles S Carver poses that both are unipolar opposites. Meaning an individual is either optimistic or pessimistic.[6] Consequentially, impossible to be both optimistic, and simultaneously pessimistic under this model.[21] Contemporary research has challenged the notion of the unidimensional model to describe optimism and pessimism as personality characteristics.

Arguably, it seems that both optimism and pessimism are better conceived as two partially independent axioms.[23][22][24] While studies contend that optimism and pessimism are related, there is considerable evidence suggesting they are empirically differentiable.[25] This can be best expressed in the mechanisms that optimism and pessimism play in individual personality differences. Within the Five Factor model of personality, optimism is positively correlated with extraversion. Conversely, pessimism was primarily negatively associated with neuroticism.[25]

It must be noted that optimism and pessimism have a broad relationship with personality and mood. Showing significant overlap with other psychological constructs depending on the operationalisation of optimism and pessimism.[25][22] There have been several studies which support this notion of optimism and pessimism as independent dimensions.[12][24][25][22]

Case study one[edit | edit source]

After developing the OPS, William N Dember et al. found that when separate scores of optimism and pessimism scores were correlated, they returned a correlation of -.52. This correlation, when considering the high internal consistency of the individual item subsets of the OPS, caused the researchers to create several assumptions. Chiefly, that optimism and pessimism represent a single bipolar dimension. To investigate this further, William N Dember et al. performed a canonical correlation analysis on the items optimism and pessimism. This resulted in a canonical r of .74. William N Dember et al. concluded that optimism and pessimism were not opposites, but rather, partially independent constructs. William N Dember et al. however, neglected to conduct a factor analysis to measure the study’s dimensionality. [22][12]

In an analysis attempting to remedy these issues, Edward C Chang et al. conducted a study amongst 389 college students. This to test the correlation between optimism and pessimism under both the LOT and OPS assessments. The analysis concluded with two main points. Firstly, the researchers discussed that a two-factor model of optimism and pessimism was more appropriate for the LOT. The correlation for this was -0.54. Conversely, the investigators found measurements of optimism and pessimism within the OPS was multidimensional. This was believed to be a result of the broad definition of both optimism and pessimism as set by William N Dember et al. The researchers go onto implicate that the OPS may be confounding optimism and pessimism with other related psychometric constructs. Namely, mood, and self-esteem. Edward C Chang et al. went onto create a truncated version of the OPS. This abbreviated version, consisted of items which fit a definition of optimism and pessimism as positive and negative outcome expectancies. The researchers concluded that a two-factor model fit the data appropriately, with an inter-factor correlation of -0.45.[12][22]

Case study two[edit | edit source]

Grant N Marshall et al. on similar grounds explored the nature of optimism and pessimism. The researchers wanted to analyse the nature the two traits have in relation to each other, and measure any potential correlation. Grant N Marshall et al. used the LOT model to analyse two large samples of male navy recruiters. The researchers additionally used a modified version of the Hopelessness Scale (HS) developed by Aaron T Beck et al. This was due to its design intention to measure positive and negative future expectancies. The modified version used a 5-point system (ranging from ‘strongly disagree’ to ‘strongly agree’) rather than the original true-false format. Grant N Marshall et al. found two important conclusions. Firstly, the study found the LOT was two-dimensional amongst their sample group. Secondly, the bidimensional model was compatible with the HS. The study showed that optimism and pessimism under factor analysis of the LOT and HS revealed the traits to be empirically differentiable. However, Optimism and pessimism were shown to be still related to some degree.[25][22][21]

Case study three[edit | edit source]

In a meta-analysis conducted by Edward C Chang et al., contends that studies, such as the two examined, create doubt surrounding the traditional unidimensional view of optimism and pessimism. When the traits are conceptualised as outcome expectancies, the bivariate model for explanatory purposes becomes more apt.[21] Edward C Chang et al. attempted to replicate the results from prior research regarding the conceptualisation of optimism and pessimism. To measure both traits, the study employed a modified measure of items from both the LOT and the OPS. These items were determined to be the best fit for defining positive and negative outcome expectancies. This modified measure in the study was called the Extended Life Orientation Test (ELOT). Due to the measures being self-report instruments, the researchers ensured to show correlations between optimism and pessimism measures.  A second aim of the study was the measure of optimism and pessimism in predicting individual wellbeing. The indicators chosen were life satisfaction, and depressive symptoms. Edward C Chang et al. sampled 425 undergraduate college students using these measures.

The study was able to partially replicate previous results which support the method of two-dimensionality of optimism and pessimism. On one hand, the researchers found confirmatory factor analyses implicated a better fit for two-factor model of optimism and pessimism. Conversely, the studies interfactor correlations was much higher compared to similar studies conducted.[25][22] The study couldn’t accurately speculate as to why measures were greatly varied across different studies when the measures of optimism and pessimism were similar. Edward C Chang et al. emphasised that the result originating from factor-analytic studies will not be sufficient. Consequentially, later research must seek different criteria for conceptualising and assessing optimism and pessimism as two-dimensional.[21]

Implications of a bidimensional model[edit | edit source]

Some may question whether the value of optimism and pessimism belonging to a two-dimensional model serves any greater utility to that of a unidimensional model. As shown in the previously examined case studies, the value of a two-dimensional model is very specific. As addressed by Edward C Chang et al., the value of the model is inherent in its ability to specify the contributions of the variables (i.e. optimism vs. pessimism) to important individual outcomes.[21] This has critical importance for the implications surrounding future research, as well as clinical practice.

Implications for the dispositional framework[edit | edit source]

The acceptance of a two-dimensional model however does not inherently mean that the dispositional framework be abandoned. As Edward C Chang et al. (1997) points out, there is still room to accepts that there are many differing types of optimism and pessimists. For instance, one can take into account research regarding ‘defensive pessimists’.[26] These individuals for instance, anticipate negative outcomes, yet engage in active coping strategies. Moreover, some researchers have argued the case for ‘cautious optimists’.[27] These individuals engage in behaviours in behaviours which can be categories as if a favourable outcome is not guaranteed. This despite the individual’s overall positive outcome expectancy. Simply put, an individual who has a negative outcomes expectancy, may not necessarily expect catastrophes to occur.[28] Conversely, an individual with a positive outcome expectancy, may not necessarily expect great things to occur either.[29][21][28][30] This implies that the adoption of this model does not necessarily preclude other forays into this topic.

Cross-cultural implications[edit | edit source]

Consistent with this motif, measures of optimism and pessimism are moderated by other variables. Most notably, cross-culturally, measures of the traits were not consistent. A study which investigated the differences of optimism and pessimism among Caucasian, and Asian-Americans found interesting results. Asian-Americans were found to be slightly more pessimistic, but not any less optimistic in comparison to Caucasian-Americans.[31] Furthermore, pessimism was found to be a consistent predictor of psychological wellbeing among Caucasian-Americans. Conversely, it was optimism, rather than pessimism, was a consistent predictor for psychological wellbeing in Asian-Americans.[31] More specifically, the study found pessimism was the greatest predictor of depressive symptoms among Caucasian-Americans. While lower levels of optimism was the greatest predictor of dysphoria among Asian-Americans.[31] As such, this further provides evidence to adopt a bidimensional model of optimism and pessimism. This especially in consideration of cross-cultural considerations.[31]

Explanatory style model[edit | edit source]

As explored, the unidimensional model of explaining optimism and pessimism is ill-suited in comparison to a bi-dimensional model. Simply, a mono-dimensional model fails to account for important distinction of human behaviour.[21] Yet in reference to similar failures present in the two-dimensional framework, it suggests that optimism and pessimism are more complex constructs than originally thought. It goes without saying that this may be a result of confusion within psychological literature.[28] In reference to this, one may suggest that an explanatory style is the answer in explaining optimism and pessimism. This, in essence removing the need for optimism and pessimism to exist on any related dimension. This model is distinct from dispositional theories of optimism and pessimism. The explanatory style contends that optimism and pessimism be applied to the manner in which people explain events in their lives.[32] Whether the events are viewed as stable or not; whether explanations apply holistically or specifically; and whether the causes for events draw internally or externally.[33] This model may not be entirely wrong as the explanatory style is related to a variety of psychological and health indices. Most notably, academic achievement, depression and physical illness.[28][11] Some researchers, namely Scheier and Carver, have argued that dispositional optimism and explanatory style theories are conceptually linked.[34][28] Several other researchers have conversely cautioned the use of the explanatory style to explain optimism and pessimism.[35][36][37] These researchers ague that casual predictions and attributions made by the explanatory model may be unrelated .[28] While much of the literature concerning the explanatory style mirrors that of dispositional optimism, the two have been isolated from each other. [28] Moreover, in a meta-analysis conducted by Jane E Gillham et al., discussed several condemning issues of the explanatory style. Firstly, the explanatory style must be precisely defined and differentiated. Similarly, the mechanisms which the explanatory model effects needs to be identified. Finally, the sources of optimism and explanation need to be identified.[28] Quite simply, were these to be answered, it could have tremendous implications for psychological theory and clinical practice. However, while they exist, the established bi-modal view of optimism and pessimism is more appropriate in exploring optimism and pessimism.

Figure x. An image by Teo Georgiev for Fine Acts showing how hope (optimism), and hopelessness (pessimism) can be intertwined.

Primary considerations[edit | edit source]

Consequentially, three primary considerations may be taken from the exploration into this topic. Firstly, it is more appropriate for optimism and pessimism to be considered outside of a unidimensional model. This is due mainly to the growing evidence resulting from studies showing the immense benefits theoretically, and clinically. Due to this, future research should consider avoiding utilising, and interpreting separate measures of both optimism and pessimism. [21][38]

Secondly, future studies regarding differing dispositional traits of optimists and pessimists should use alternative frameworks. For instance, a cognitive-behavioural model may allow researchers to examine optimistic and pessimistic tendencies across a variety of situations. This could clarify the correlations between optimism and pessimism.[21]

Finally, research not only should refine existing measure of optimism and pessimism but develop alternative non-test means. This primarily to assess the constructs of optimism and pessimism separately in the pursuit of achieving convergent validity.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Dan Seaborn. (2017). Are you a peptimist? Holland Sentinel. Retrieved 20th of August, from
  2. Joe Bailey. (1988). Pessimism. Routledge.
  3. Sandra L Schneider. (2001). In search of realistic optimism: Meaning, knowledge, and warm fuzziness. American psychologist, 56(3), 250.
  4. Ezra Stotland. (1969). The psychology of hope (1st Edition ed.). Jossey-Bass.
  5. Jerome D Frank. (1974). Psychotherapy: The restoration of morale. American Journal of Psychiatry, 131(3), 271-274.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 6.5 6.6 Michael F Scheier, & Charles S Carver. (1985). Optimism, coping, and health: assessment and implications of generalized outcome expectancies. Health psychology, 4(3), 219.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Michael F Scheier, Jagdish K Weintraub, & Charles S Carver. (1986). Coping with stress: divergent strategies of optimists and pessimists. Journal of personality and social psychology, 51(6), 1257.
  8. Aaron T Beck. (1963). Thinking and depression: I. Idiosyncratic content and cognitive distortions. Archives of general psychiatry, 9(4), 324-333.
  9. Roy R Grinker, Julian Miller, Melvin Sabshin, Robert Nunn, & Jum C Nunnally. (1961). The phenomena of depressions.
  10. Daniel K Mroczek, AvronSpiro, Carolyn M Aldwin, Daniel J Ozer, & Raymond Bossé. (1993). Construct validation of optimism and pessimism in older men: findings from the normative aging study. Health psychology, 12(5), 406.
  11. 11.0 11.1 Christopher Peterson, Martin E Seligman, & George E Vaillant. (1988). Pessimistic explanatory style is a risk factor for physical illness: a thirty-five-year longitudinal study. Journal of personality and social psychology, 55(1), 23.
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 12.3 12.4 12.5 12.6 William N Dember, Stephanie H Martin, Mary K Hummer, Steven R Howe, & Richard S Melton. (1989). The measurement of optimism and pessimism. Current Psychology, 8(2), 102-119.
  13. Jay Y Gonen, & Leonard M Lansky. (1968). Masculinity, femininity, and masculinity-femininity: A phenomenological study of the Mf scale of the MMPI. Psychological Reports, 23(1), 183-194.
  14. Sandra L Bem. (1974). The measurement of psychological androgyny. Journal of consulting and clinical psychology, 42(2), 155.
  15. Judy Garber. (2000). Optimism: Definitions and Origins. Templeton Foundation Press, 229-314.
  16. Merriam-Webster. (2017, 14th of November, 2017). Definition of Optimism. Marriam-Webster. Retrieved 18th of August, from
  17. Wayne Weiten, Dana S Dunn, & Elizabeth Yost Hammer. (2014). Psychology Applied to Modern Life: Adjustment in the 21st Century. Cengage Learning.
  18. 18.0 18.1 Steven J Breckler, James Olson, & Elizabeth Wiggins. (2005). Social Psychology Alive. Cengage Learning.
  19. Oliver Bennett. (2019). Cultural pessimism: Narratives of decline in the postmodern world. Edinburgh University Press.
  20. Aaron T Beck, Arlene Weissman, David Lester, & Larry Trexler. (1974). The measurement of pessimism: the hopelessness scale. Journal of consulting and clinical psychology, 42(6), 861.
  21. 21.00 21.01 21.02 21.03 21.04 21.05 21.06 21.07 21.08 21.09 21.10 21.11 21.12 21.13 21.14 Edward C Chang, Albert Maydeu-Olivares, & Thomas J D'Zurilla. (1997). Optimism and pessimism as partially independent constructs: Relationship to positive and negative affectivity and psychological well-being. Personality and individual differences, 23(3), 433-440.
  22. 22.0 22.1 22.2 22.3 22.4 22.5 22.6 22.7 Edward C Chang, Thomas J D'Zurilla, & Albert Maydeu-Olivares. (1994). Assessing the dimensionality of optimism and pessimism using a multimeasure approach. Cognitive therapy and research, 18(2), 143-160.
  23. Daniel K Mroczek, Avron Spiro, Carolyn M Aldwin, Daniel J Ozer, & Raymond Bossé. (1993). Construct validation of optimism and pessimism in older men: findings from the normative aging study. Health psychology, 12(5), 406.
  24. 24.0 24.1 Mariellen Fischer, & Harold Leitenberg. (1986). Optimism and pessimism in elementary school-aged children. Child development, 241-248.
  25. 25.0 25.1 25.2 25.3 25.4 25.5 Grant N Marshall, Camille B Wortman, Jeffrey W Kusulas, Linda K Hervig, & Ross R Vickers Jr. (1992). Distinguishing optimism from pessimism: Relations to fundamental dimensions of mood and personality. Journal of personality and social psychology, 62(6), 1067.
  26. Julie K Norem, & Nancy Cantor. (1986). Defensive pessimism: Harnessing anxiety as motivation. Journal of personality and social psychology, 51(6), 1208.
  27. Kenneth A Wallston. (1994). Cautious optimism vs. cockeyed optimism. Psychology and Health, 9(3), 201-203.
  28. 28.0 28.1 28.2 28.3 28.4 28.5 28.6 28.7 Jane E Gillham, Andrew J Shatté, Karen J Reivich, & Martin EP Seligman. (2001). Optimism, pessimism, and explanatory style American Psychological Association, 53-75.
  29. Edward C Chang. (1998). Distinguishing between optimism and pessimism: A second look at the optimism–neuroticism hypothesis. International Congress of Psychology, 26th, Aug, 1996, Montreal, Canada; Portions of this study were presented at the aforementioned congress.,
  30. Kenneth P Nunn. (1996). Personal hopefulness: A conceptual review of the relevance of the perceived future to psychiatry. British Journal of Medical Psychology, 69(3), 227-245.
  31. 31.0 31.1 31.2 31.3 Edward C Chang. (1996). Cultural differences in optimism, pessimism, and coping: Predictors of subsequent adjustment in Asian American and Caucasian American college students. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 43(1), 113.
  32. M.E.P Seligman. (1991). Learned Optimism. New York: Knopf.
  33. Christopher Peterson, & Lisa M Bossio. (1991). Health and optimism. Free Press.
  34. Michael F Scheier, & Charles S Carver. (1993). On the power of positive thinking: The benefits of being optimistic. Current directions in psychological science, 2(1), 26-30.
  35. Constance L Hammen, & Susan D Cochran. (1981). Cognitive correlates of life stress and depression in college students. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 90(1), 23.
  36. Harold M Zullow. (1991). Explanations and Expectations: Understanding the 'Doing'Side of Optimism'. Psychological Inquiry, 2(1), 45-49.
  37. Lyn Y Abramson, Gerald I Metalsky, & Lauren B Alloy. (1989). Hopelessness depression: A theory-based subtype of depression. Psychological review, 96(2), 358.
  38. Timothy W Smith, Mary K Pope, Frederick Rhodewalt, & James L Poulton. (1989). Optimism, neuroticism, coping, and symptom reports: an alternative interpretation of the Life Orientation Test. Journal of personality and social psychology, 56(4), 640.

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