To make matters more complex, the idea of optimism and pessimism as dispositional attributes is giving way to a more nuanced view of these constructs (Paul, 2011). Neither perspective is inherently "good" or "bad", both
Personally, I've always considered myself something of a realist. On a scale of half-empty to half-full, most of the time I think "oh, there's a glass with some water in it, let's measure it". In some contexts, I'm more optimistic (e.g., if I'm working on a project and I have a sufficient degree of control over it, I'm usually reasonably optimistic that it will succeed), in other contexts, I'm less optimistic (e.g., if I'm out fishing on a Sunday morning, and the tides are all wrong and I'm out of bait, I'm reasonably pessimistic about bringing home dinner). Based on the criteria outlined above, I believe I am a realistic optimist. How about you?
These indicators include interest rates (increase in interest rates, decrease in aggregate expenditures), confidence or expectations (pessimistic economic outlook, fall in aggregate expenditures), and Government Policies and Federal Deficit (Increase in taxes or fall in Government spending, fall in aggregate expenditures).
Peterson distinguishes between optimism as an illusion versus a delusion, relating the distinction to previous authors such as Freud. He further describes “big” and “little” optimism, while cautioning researchers against assuming the same processes are involved in both. Available for purchase or by subscription.
This is a very brief introduction to the construct of defensive pessimism that includes discussion of how it relates to other types of optimism and pessimism. Written to be accessible for a general audience, it provides an easy starting point for undergraduates. Online access with a subscription is available through .
Chang, Edward C., Rita Chang, and Lawrence J. Sanna. 2009. Optimism, pessimism, and motivation: Relations to adjustment. Social and Personality Psychology Compass 3:494–506. DOI:
Chang, Edward C., ed. 2001. Optimism and pessimism: Implications for theory, research, and practice. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. DOI:
Psychologists have defined a variety of different kinds of optimism and pessimism, and few reference sources treat all of them. provides the most comprehensive collection of work on optimism/pessimism constructs. This volume includes chapters by virtually every major researcher in the area, as well as informative overview and summary chapters and chapters on the philosophical roots of modern views. is a concise review of research on dispositional optimism as an individual difference variable, written by those responsible for development of the most frequently used measure of optimism and much of the most influential research on that construct. provides some historical context and cautionary notes for contemporary optimism researchers. offers a review that focuses on continuing issues and controversies in optimism and pessimism research. This article is intended for an educated audience but one without specific background in optimism research. The same is true of , which presents a short, pithy summary of unrealistic optimism research. is a very short introduction to defensive pessimism written for a general audience.
This volume was published shortly after a surge in optimism research in the late 1990’s, and it provides a thorough overview of optimism/pessimism constructs, theory, and research. The chapters are accessible to graduate students and researchers new to the area. This volume works well as a text for seminars.
In psychology, the most commonly used optimism/pessimism construct is dispositional optimism, which is the general tendency to expect positive outcomes, as opposed to dispositional pessimism, which is the general tendency to expect negative outcomes. Dispositional optimism/pessimism refer to broad, stable individual differences that are influenced by interactions between environment and genetics. Early interest in dispositional optimism/pessimism arose from its role in self-regulation models, because our expectations drive our responses during goal pursuit, especially when we encounter obstacles. Dispositional optimism is associated with a wide variety of positive outcomes, including better mental and physical health, motivation, performance, and personal relationships. Dispositional optimists typically show more persistence and approach-focused ways of coping with short- and long-term stressors. There are several other psychological concepts also labeled optimism and pessimism. There is a large research literature on unrealistic optimism, which is sometimes referred to as “comparative” optimism, because it is defined as being more optimistic about one’s own future outcomes than about others’ future outcomes. Unrealistic optimism is positively related to dispositional optimism but often shows different relationships to outcomes. There is also research on defensive pessimism, strategic optimism, hopeless pessimism, and situated (or situation-specific) optimism, as well as related concepts such as hope and illusion of control. Ongoing research investigates the relations among different kinds of optimism/pessimism, the potential independence of optimism and pessimism, and the specific processes by which they influence and are influenced by other constructs. Explanatory or attributional styles, which refer to characteristic ways that people explain events, are often described as optimistic or pessimistic (or referred to as optimism or pessimism). Those with an optimistic style explain negative events in terms of external, variable, and specific causes, while those with a pessimistic style use explanations that focus on internal, stable, and global causes. Dispositional and attributional optimism/pessimism are not strongly correlated, and attributional optimism/pessimism focus on explanations of past events rather than expectations about the future. There is an extensive research literature on attributional optimism, but the multidimensional nature of attributional styles and their weak relationship to other kinds of optimism/pessimism make extensive integration of that work with other optimism research beyond the scope of this article. Thus, there will be some discussion of the construct and its measurement but only a few references to specific research results.
I remember learning in another class about the attribution styles you described (external vs internal and stable vs unstable causes). Those are part of attribution theory and as I recall can be related to a person's risk of developing depression. The chart you posted is very interesting as well. It definitely gives a simplified map of the various ways people see the world. I liked your description of your thoughts as a realist. It made me laugh! I also consider myself to be a realist! I read an article about a study the other day in which researchers found that hand washing boosts optimism. Do you think this is an idea that should be further explored?