Question: Estimate the odds of the following two events:
- A large flood somewhere in America in which more than one thousand people die.
- An earthquake in California, causing large flooding, in which more than a thousand people die.
Did you rate the second scenario (b) as being more probable? Many people do even though the first scenario (a) is more likely. If you reflect on the two options for a moment this should be obvious because, as a general condition, Scenario b would naturally be included under Scenario a.
The reason many people misdiagnose the odds is because the second scenario (a California earthquake) is easy to perceive, whereas the first is more abstract. In much the same way, people misdiagnose situations based on their perception. This truism is often characterized as seeing the glass as either half full or half-empty, although the true impact of this distinction goes far beyond this cliché.
The difference between optimists and pessimists has succinctly been delineated by Martin Seligman, the author of Learned Optimism, who explains it thusly: When bad things happen to optimistic people they tend to see the event as: 1) temporary (limited in duration); 2) external (being caused by something outside their immediate sphere of influence); and 3) specific (affecting only a partial or isolated area of their life). Pessimistic people, by contrast, view negative events as: 1) permanent (or lasting a long time); 2) personal (they are somehow to blame); and pervasive (affecting all aspects of their life).
A person’s outlook on life—be it optimistic or pessimistic—might seem a matter of personal disposition but Seligman’s research suggests otherwise. Pessimism can be unlearned and the benefits are not inconsequential. Optimists have been found to lead longer, healthier, happier and, ultimately, more successful and fulfilling lives.
Consider just one of Seligman’s studies on optimism. In 1985, while working with Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, 15,000 potential applicants took Met Life’s regular career profile test along with an Attributional Style Questionnaire (ASQ), which measures optimism. One thousand applicants were hired as salespeople on the basis of the career profile alone. Met Life, however, still had a shortage of insurance agents and took the unusual step of hiring an additional 100 employees solely on the basis of those who scored in the top half of the ASQ. In other words, they hired only optimistic people for the additional openings.
What Met Life discovered was that the special hires—people who didn’t pass muster on its regular career profile—outsold the pessimists in the regular force by 57 percent.
This was the result of a few different factors. For starters, optimism helped these people push ahead in the face of failure. Rather than accepting setbacks as a mark of personal failure, they adopted an outlook closer to that of the great inventor, Thomas Edison, who once remarked: “I have not failed. I have found 10,000 ways that didn’t work.” And failure, as we saw in this lesson, can have the counter-intuitive affect of enhancing the quality of a product—or, in this case, a sales pitch—by virtue of continuous improvement.
Optimism also encourages risk. This isn’t always a positive trait but in an era of continuous change risk-taking can call forth those qualities most likely to deliver success in a fast-changing environment: innovation and agility.
Unlearning pessimism merely requires you to adopt a positive explanatory style as your default setting when describing negative events. Instead of focusing on the negative strive to put negative matters in a positive light and, where possible, view them as temporary, external and limited in nature. In other words put on rose-color glasses.
Homework Assignment: If one were required to compile a list of “the best things that could ever happen to me,” it would be hard to imagine that “being jilted by a lover” would make the list. To better understand how to adopt a positive explanatory style, explain how being left at the altar by an erstwhile lover could, in fact, come to be described as “the best thing that ever happened to me”?