Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Optimism vs Pessimism

Wretchard has a fine post today that analyzes the data on the insurgency/terror attacks in Iraq, which the NY Times had reported as 'sprawling' and 'sweeping' and 'widespread'.

So everything checks out just as the New York Times article reported it. All the facts are individually true, but Prime Minister Allawie's assertion that most provinces are "completely safe" and that security prospects are bright are also supported by those same facts. Such is the fog of war. (Emphasis mine)

This is a classic example of "the glass is half empty/half full" scenario. Depending on how you look at the data, it is one way or the opposite. It seems to me that it is primarily a psychological argument since those who are hopeful/optimistic see it one way (half full); those who are defeatist/pessimistic see it the other (half empty). You can never prove the other side wrong, because the data can support either view.

But there are other data that support optimism and hope as having positive impact on individuals as well as situations. Optimism is positively and highly correlated with mastery and self-esteem. It is negatively correlated with anxiety and neuroticism. The correlations appear to be higher for women than for men. The test that measures optimism is strongly correlated with reported use of particular coping strategies such as emotional regulation strategies (sublimation, humor, and anticipation) and strongly negatively correlated with avoidant coping strategies (such as fantasy, acting-out, repression, projection, hypochondriasis and passive-aggression). Optimism was also found in some studies to improve health and lead to substantially better illness outcomes and longevity; while pessimism was found to predispose to illness and to increase mortality.

As one researcher commented, "It confirmed our common-sense belief. It tells us that mind and body are linked and that attitude has an impact on the final outcome — death."

There is likely a strong biological component to both optimism and pessimism. There are pros and cons to both styles Extreme optimism can be a denial of reality and pain. Extreme pessimism can be depressing because it seems to only focus on the negative and catastrophizes events.

Genuine optimists are not in denial. They see the situation for what it is, yet are also able to mobilize the energy and effort necessary to be able to push through, persevere and complete a task despite setbacks. A healthy dose of optimism can be uplifting and hopeful. Achieving a balance of being realistic and hopeful can be a challenge. A perfect example of unhealthy optimism is the gambler who always believes that his risks will result in winning. It is easy to see that this is more than optimistic, it is delusional, because the individual denies the reality of statistics and chance inherent in gambling and can grossly overestimate his/her odds of winning.

The huge advantage of the optimist appears when reality in all its unpleasant aspects is faced unflinchingly and taken on. The optimist will work to identify strategies that have a potential for success and be much more likely to implement them. The optimist, because they are focused on success, will be quicker to abandon a failing strategy and substitute one with a greater chance of working. While their psychological state does not guarantee success, if success is possible, the optimist will have a great chance of finding it.

Pessimists on the other hand, are very good at looking at reality and acknowledging the unpleasantness; but the problem is that it makes them flinch, and they give up searching for solutions much earlier than the optimist would. Failure becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy for the pessimist, who at heart believes that is the only possible outcome anyway. They can accuse the optimist of living in a "fantasyland", but that accusation can just as easily be applied to them, since "failure" can become a fantasy as readily as "success" can.

In the end, the determination of failure or success in Iraq will have to wait for events to unfold. The pessimists would have us pack up and go home, thus guaranteeing failure. The way of the optimist is to persevere and keep the eyes on the prize (an Iraqi Democracy in the Middle East). Failure may also result, but it is not a given.

So, although the data may be neutral and can be interpreted as either positve or negative; the psychological underpinnings of data analysis have significant implications in the real world. Most people understand this fact intuitively, and will tend toward the political candidate who is a healthy optimist and who is likely --particularly in a war--to lead the country to victory.

All in all, I tend to see the glass as half full, knowing that optimism will improve my own health and sense of mastery over the world; and may very likely also have a positive impact on what is going on in Iraq at the same time.


Anonymous said...

I think you're right about optimism being attractive. It's definitely UNattractive to be all doom and gloom about things. In that regard, Bush has it all over Kerry for sure.

Anonymous said...

You are full of it.

dymphna's double said...

Hmmm...what is "it" precisely that you are full of? Information perhaps...

the money quote:

The optimist will work to identify strategies that have a potential for success and be much more likely to implement them.

This is why we all go back to Wretchard, isn't it?

In one of your posts you talked about...displacement, maybe?...and used the example of the child mad at a parent who is not present when the child is ill. Therefore, in an immature ego, it is the parent who is blamed for the pain...

So many people seem to hit the comments section of Belmont with a happy sigh--ah, at last someone who can bear the truth for us and then help us metabolize it and then utilize our Wretchard-derived wisdom.

I do wish that optimism could be taken like an SSRI. As a kid, I loved Pollyanna. I mean, I actually read those stories and tried to emulate her. It's a fragile optimism though: one is always afraid the candle will go out and there we'll be. In the infinite dark.

Maybe if we read him long enough, W--Belmont, I mean, will teach us dour right wingers to smile. Imagine.

dymphna's double said...

And, yes, I know the metabolism bit is straight out of Object Relations. Melanie Klein is probably rolling in her grave...