Software dev, tech, mind hacks and the occasional personal bit

“Learned Optimism” by Martin Seligman

Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life is an interesting mix of a psychological treatise and a self-help book. Unlike many self-help books, this book is written by somebody with clear qualifications in the area. The author, Martin Seligman, is a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and a past president of the American Psychological Association. The concepts in the book were derived from well-designed studies of people and animals and were written up in reputable journals including Science.

The first part of the book focuses on the recent history of psychology and explains Seligman’s research into learned helplessness and his later shift into researching optimism. He describes multiple studies performed and the results, and how they were disputed by proponents of other theories. The most memorable study he describes was designed to show learned helplessness using dogs. The experiment used three dogs. The first was placed in a box that continued to give the dog electric shocks until it pressed a bar. The second dog was placed in a box that continued to give it electric shocks until the first dog pressed the bar in the other box. The third dog sat in a box with no electric shocks. In the final stage of the experiment, all three dogs were placed in boxes which gave electric shocks until the dogs jumped over to the other side of a partition. Across a large number of repetitions, the common behaviour was that the first dog quickly jumped over the partition and escaped the shock. The second dog (with learned helplessness) just lay on the bottom of the box being shocked. The third dog (the control) jumped over the partition and escaped as well. Similar experiments were performed with people and annoying sounds with similar results. Seligman also found that a small proportion of people and dogs did not give up and seemed immune to learned hopelessness. This later became the focus of his research into optimism.

An interesting observation made in the book is that previously, people used to have faith and trust in their community, church, country and government and this provided support in times of personal failure. However, in recent times, these supports are no longer present or as strong for many people. With rising work hours etc, community and neighbours are much less important than they were previously. Religion has declined and many people do not go to church in the western world. Governments have been caught out in lies and corruption (eg, Nixon, Howard). Faith in country has been eroded by globalisation and wars like Vietnam and Iraq. Simultaneously, marketing and consumer culture has focussed on elevating the importance of the self, personal choice and success. In this environment, where self is all important, and the supports of previous generations no longer apply, personal failure is far more debilitating and depressing than it has ever been before.

Later in the book, Seligman explains that everyone, when they have a set back or failure, are stopped in their tracks at least briefly. However, optimists recover faster and are able to act again sooner due to the way they explain the failure to themselves. When something bad happens to an optimist, they expect that the bad thing will be short lived (temporary), was caused by someone else (external) and only affects a partial area of their life (specific). Pessimists are the opposite. They expect bad things to go on for ever (permanent), were caused by them (personal) and will affect their whole life (pervasive). The opposite applies for each cognitive style as well – optimists see good things as permanent, personal and pervasive. Pessimists see good things as temporary, external and specific. Seligman also mentions that turning a thought over and over in one’s mind (rumination), with a pessimistic explanatory style leads to a magnification of the negative impact of the thought (often a factor in depression).

There are also a number of psychological tests in the book that aim to measure optimism. Variations on these were used successfully for selection of sales people who had to make cold calls at a large insurance company (MET Life). A high level of optimism meant that the sales people were able to keep on going despite multiple rejections.

In the last section of the book, Seligman talks about ways to dispute one’s internal dialogue and explain the set backs in life in less self-damaging ways (ie, temporary, external and specific). He suggests that your internal voice should not necessarily be given any more credence than an external voice as it can often be biased. He recommends disputing internal dialog with evidence, offering alternate explanations and analysing the implications. His other suggestion is to postpone thinking about the problem by distraction or writing it down and setting a time to think on it further.

Seligman finishes by discussing when optimism or pessimism is most appropriate. His theory is that optimism is generally a beneficial outlook as it allows one to be proactive and productive in the face of failure, to lead and to inspire and encourage others. However, his studies showed that mild pessimists had a more realistic world view than optimists. Hence in life critical situations, certain types of advisory and assurance roles, mild pessimism and the resulting realism was a better mindset to employ.

Overall, there are a lot of interesting ideas in the book. After reading it, I now think a lot more about my internal dialogue and pay more attention to the way I explain good and bad events to myself. I did find that the last part of the book about “Changing from Pessimism to Optimism” was a bit repetitive as it covers the same ground multiple times with emphasis on different areas such as relationships, work and teaching children. Although I found the historical information and descriptions of studies well written, convincing and interesting, I would have preferred a few less in the interests of concision. These small complaints aside, I would highly recommend reading this book, especially if you find yourself ruminating often on the difficulties in your life rather than enjoying the good parts and taking action.


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  1. Thanks for sharing.

    A friend who works in the life coaching area mentioned Seligman recently and I completed his VIA Survey of Character Strengths and found it valuable. You might also like it.

    And here is a link that suggest activities that use your signature strengths in everyday life, which can improve life satisfaction.

  2. Good Review!

    I think the learned helplessness experiment was something of a eureka moment of me. I see a direct analogy between dogs not escaping from pain and many work place scenarios… scenarios that lead to depression! 🙂

    Corporate culture is particularly challenging in this regard… the individual can see so many problems but due to the in-agility/momentum of a large corporation, you often cannot affect change no matter how hard you try. Guess what the result is when you see no effect from repeated attempts? You become that dog in the cage that gives up, despite the stimulus (work place problems). You may recognize these people as the workplace cynic.

    Given that you can’t stop the pain, it makes sense to jump out of the cage that this point (get a new job!). Problem is the physiological damage of such a scenario actually limits an individuals ability to step back and see external opportunities etc.

  3. Matthew Leitch

    The part of ‘Learned Optimism’ that seems a problem is that the concern is with getting a happy view of life rather than establishing the truth. For example, if something goes wrong and you attribute it to a general, persistent problem then that’s only wrong if in fact the real cause is narrow and temporary. If the real cause is general and persistent then that is how one should see it.

    My work is in the field of ‘risk management’ and I’ve written two books on the subject. After thinking about this problem for some time I came to realise that there’s more to it than just the single dimension of ‘optimism-realism-pessimism’.

    I wrote about this in an article called “Optimism, Pessimism, and Open-Minded Realism” available here

  4. Os

    A good review, tainted by your disparaging reference to former PM John Howard. Lift your game clever one, You’ve got a broad audience out here and I would say that many of them think Howard was a decent man. I do anyway.

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