In my most recent article about optimism I described research conducted at the University of Waterloo in Canada on self-esteem. Surprisingly Lead researcher Joanne Wood found that giving positive pep talks to oneself only raised the mood of those people who already thought well of themselves. This technique actually backfired for those with low self-esteem. One additional thing that I might mention about this research is that the subjects were reminded to think how loveable they were by hearing a bell ring every 15 seconds. I don’t know about you, but to hear a noise that consistently reminding me to change my thoughts seems more like the equalitarian dystopia in Kurt Vonnegut’s Harrison Bergeron than anything else.
Is it possible there is a lot more that contributes to the level of self-esteem and therefore to an optimistic or pessimistic bend that we do not consider? One of the seven intelligences according to Howard Gardner is intrapersonal intelligence. This is the ability to to consciously deal with one’s own inner world of thoughts and emotions. A person with intrapersonal intelligence spends a lot of time considering why they think and feel what they think and feel. There is another name given to this trait. It is call private self-consciousness. Stephen Franzoi of the University of California at Davis has studied the effects or private self-consciousness. People scoring high in this measure have a more detailed and accurate self-knowledge. They are more likely to self-disclose about their problems in periods of distress, but tend to do so in a low key manner that will not push social acquaintances away. They are also more likely to be depressed.
A series of studies on how people shift between optimistic and pessimistic outlooks (Hazlett and Molden) has concluded that people may choose the outlook that has the best motivational value for them. People that are concerned with promoting their growth and advancement not only tend towards optimistic forecasting, they do better at tasks when they adopting an optimistic outlook. People that work towards the twin goals of safety and security, emphasize preventing bad events from happening. Conversely they perform better when adopting a pessimistic outlook. Of course all that the people in this research were performing was finding the solutions to anagrams.
However it is interesting to note that if the participants were encourage to think thoughts counter their natural tendency, either negative or positive, they were less persistent in trying to crack the anagrams. This research does not support the “logical” argument that people who are pessimists are prone to give up and stop trying. It seems what researchers are describing is a normally optimistic person taking a pessimistic view, because this does lead to lower persistence. If optimism and pessimism really is a trait of person’s disposition, we should be wary of teaching them to change a way a thinking that has been adopted because it actually works better for them.
Hazlett, Abigail and Molden, Daniel C. Northwestern University. Aaron M. Sackett, University of St. Thomas Social Cognition: Vol. 29, No. 1, pp. 74-96. 2011
Derlaga, Valerian J , and Berg, John H. eds. Self-Disclosure: Theory, Research, and Therapy
Slavin, Robert (2009) Educational Psychology, p. 117 ISBN 0-205-59200-7