MacArthur SES & Health Network
MacArthur SES & Health Network


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Optimism/Pessimism

Summary prepared by Shelley Taylor in collaboration with the Psychosocial Working Group. Last revised July, 1998.

Chapter Contents

  1. Definition and Background
  2. Measurement
  3. Relation to SES
  4. Relation to Health
  5. Limitations
  6. Network Usage
  7. Conclusions
  8. Selected Bibliography

Definition and Background

Two related concepts are reviewed here: dispositional optimism and situational optimism. Dispositional optimism refers to generalized outcome expectancies that good things, rather than bad things, will happen; pessimism refers to the tendency to expect negative outcomes in the future. Situational optimism refers to the expectations an individual generates for a particular situation concerning whether good, rather than bad, things will happen.

Interest in dispositional optimism was fueled initially by a general model of behavioral self-regulation derived by Carver and Scheier (1981) which assumes that goal-directed behavior is guided by a hierarchy of closed-loop negative feedback systems. Optimism was judged to be a general and stable dispositional resource that influences whether an individual will stay focused on reducing discrepancies between present behavior and a goal or standard selected for pursuit. Both generalized outcome expectancies (dispositional optimism) and specific situational expectancies (situational optimism, as detailed below) are believed to maintain focus and effort. Situational optimism is a positive outcome expectancy for a specific situation. Because specific expectancies are more proximal to specific events than dispositional beliefs, they may be important predictors of psychological and biological responses to specific stressors.

Another approach to assessing dispositional optimism derives from Seligman's theoretical position on learned helplessness. It maintains that, to the extent that generalized expectancies are negative, internal, and global, bad health and mental health consequences will follow, a response style termed "pessimistic explanatory style."

The origins of optimism and pessimism are not altogether known. With respect to dispositional optimism, there appears to be some genetic role, inasmuch as the heritability factor has been estimated at .33.

Measurement

The LOT (Scheier & Carver, 1985) and the LOT-R (Scheier, Carver, & Bridges, 1994) are two measures of dispositional optimism. The original LOT was a 10-item scale with two filler items, four positively-worded items, and four reverse-coded items. The LOT-R has been revised to remove colloquialisms and is a 10-item measure with four filler items, three positively-worded items, and three reverse-coded items. Respondents indicate their degree of agreement with statements such as, "In uncertain times, I usually expect the best," using a five-point response scale ranging from "strongly disagree" to "strongly agree." Negatively-worded items are usually reversed, and a single score is obtained, although as information reported below will suggest, examining the relation of the positively- and negatively-worded items to SES and outcome variables may be important. Cronbach's alpha for the total score is estimated at .82. It has been used extensively in studies of stress, both with college students and with people going through stressful events, such as medical populations facing or recovering from serious diseases or treatments. The LOT is somewhat confounded with negative affectivity (Smith, Pope, Rhodewalt, & Poulton, 1989), although this issue appears to be problematic primarily for associations between optimism and self-reported symptoms, rather than optimism and "harder" health outcomes (Scheier, Carver, & Bridges, 1994).

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Pessimistic explanatory style, as it is called, is measured by content analysis of interview protocols for attributions of negative events to stable, internal, and/or global factors.

Situational optimism measures assess expectations about outcomes in particular contexts. Consequently, items vary from situation to situation. Examples of situational optimism items employed in our study of adjustment to law school (Segerstrom et al., in press) are "it is unlikely that I will fail,v "I will be less successful than most of my classmates" (reverse-coded), and "I feel confident when I think about law school." Situational and dispositional optimism measures have been found to be only modestly correlated; a study by Taylor et al. (1992) reports the highest and only significant correlation between specific outcome expectations and generalized optimism (.18), and studies that have employed both measures have found that they predict different patterns of psychological and physical health outcomes.

Relation to SES

Three datasets have been identified that examine the SES distribution of the LOT. The first, a dataset of Gail Ironson's, on Florida residents' recovery from Hurricane Andrew (N = 168), was analyzed for SES associations by Chuck Carver. He found that the LOT was correlated .29 with education and .23 with income; when only the negatively-worded items were considered, those correlations increased to .34 and .26, and correlations between SES and the positively-worded items became non-significant. In a study of 234 CABG patients, Scheier and Bridges found a significant relation between education and the LOT (p < .001). When the analysis of variance was repeated separately for positive versus negative items, the effects of positively-worded items became non-significant, whereas the effect for negative items became much stronger (p < .0001). We were intrigued by the Carver and the Scheier results, so we analyzed our HIV and Women dataset, and found essentially the same thing. The correlation between education and the LOT is .24; but the positively-worded items are correlated only .08, whereas the negatively-worded items are correlated -.31 (N = 256). We found a similar, though somewhat weaker trend, for family income. Thus, three separate and quite different datasets show that high SES people seem to differ from low SES people primarily in their expectation that fewer negative events will occur, not in their expectation that positive outcomes will occur. There is no known relation of Seligman's pessimistic explanatory style to SES, although it bears investigation.

Dispositional optimism is correlated fairly highly with mastery (.55), trait anxiety (-.59), neuroticism (-.50), and self-esteem (.54) (Scheier, Carver, & Bridges, 1994). The correlations appear to be higher for women than for men. The LOT is strongly correlated with reported use of particular coping strategies. An examination of its relation to the COPE, for example, found the LOT to be strongly positively correlated with active coping strategies and with emotional regulation strategies, and strongly negatively correlated with avoidant coping strategies (Scheier, Weintraub, & Carver, 1986).

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Relation to Health

Some relation of dispositional optimism to biological endpoints have been uncovered. Schulz et al. (1994) found that the pessimism items of the LOT were a significant predictor of early mortality among young patients with recurrent cancer, after controlling for site and symptoms. In a study of CABG patients, Scheier et al. (1989) found that pessimists (total score) were significantly more likely to have developed new Q-waves on their electrocardiograms as a result of the surgery and were significantly more likely to have a clinically significant release of the enzyme, aspartate aminotransferace; both are markers for MI, suggesting that the pessimists were significantly more likely than the optimists to have had an infarct during surgery; these relations persisted after controlling for number of grafts, severity of CHD, and a composite index of coronary risk factors. Optimism significantly predicted rate of recovery, such that optimists were faster to achieving behavioral milestones, such as sitting up in bed and walking, than were pessimists, and were rated by staff members as showing a better physical recovery. At six-month follow-up, optimists continued to have a recovery advantage, reporting that they were more likely to have resumed vigorous physical exercise, to have returned to work, and to have resumed normal activities (see also Fitzgerald, Tennen, Affleck, & Pransky, 1993). In a five-year follow-up, optimists were more likely to be working and, among those experiencing angina, reported less severe chest pain. A manuscript by Scheier and associates currently under review reports that optimists are less likely to be rehospitalized for complications arising from the surgery.

Two studies of college students conducted during the last weeks of the academic semester found that optimists reported developing fewer physical symptoms than pessimists over time, taking baseline symptoms into account (Scheier & Carver, 1991; Taylor & Aspinwall, 1990). In a study of optimism in middle-aged and older adults, Robinson-Whelen, Kim, MacCallum, & Kiecolt-Glaser (1997) found that the pessimism scale of the LOT, but not the optimistically-worded items, predicted subsequent psychological and physical health for both stressed and non-stressed adults.

Not all studies show a protective relationship of optimism or a negative effect of pessimism on health. Chesterman, Cohen, and Adler (1990) found that optimism predicted birth complications in older women, and F. Cohen, Kearney, Zegans, Kemeny, Neuhaus, and Stites (1997) found evidence suggesting that optimists showed decreased immunocompetence in response to stress; however, in another study (Bachen, Manuck, Muldoon, Cohen, & Rabin, 1991), pessimism was associated with decreased immunocompetence in response to stress.

In addition to its association with disease directly, dispositional optimism has been related to other routes to biological endpoints, including the use of more active and problem-focused coping strategies (Carver, Scheier, & Weintraub, 1989; Taylor et al., 1992), greater psychological well-being, and better health habits (e.g., Park, Moore, Turner, & Adler, 1997; see Scheier & Carver, 1992, for a review).

Evidence relating situational optimism to health-related outcome measures also exists. For example, in the context of HIV infection, negative HIV-specific expectancies predicted immune decline (Kemeny, Reed, Taylor, Visscher, & Fahey, 1996), symptom onset (Reed, Kemeny, Taylor, & Visscher, in press), and survival time for AIDS (Reed, Kemeny, Taylor, Wang, & Visscher, 1994); dispositional optimism did not (although positive versus negative items were not examined separately). These findings are consistent with the view that pessimistic expectations may be more implicated in both SES and health than optimistic expectations. In the study on coping with law school (Segerstrom, Taylor, Kemeny, & Fahey, in press), situational optimists had higher NKCC after controlling for the effects of mood. Leedham, Meyerowitz, Muirhead, and Frist (1995) found that situationally optimistic expectations were associated with faster recovery following heart transplant.

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Studies that have used pessimistic explanatory style as a measure of pessimism have also uncovered relations to health. Pessimistic explanatory style was associated with lower levels of two measures of cell-mediated immunity in a sample of elderly men and women (Kamen-Siegel, Rodin, Seligman, & Dwyer, 1991). A study of Harvard University graduates assessing pessimistic explanatory style at age 25 found that these men had significantly poorer health or were more likely to have died when they were assessed 20 to 35 years later (Peterson, Seligman, & Vaillant, 1988).

Conceptually related findings are also reported by Antoni and Goodkin (1988), who found that, among women with atypical neoplastic cervical growth, those who were pessimistic (as assessed on the Millon Inventory) were more likely to have severe disease. Hopelessness has also been linked to all-cause mortality and cause-specific mortality (Everson et al., 1996).

Limitations

In terms of dispositional optimism, some disadvantages are a somewhat higher relationship to negative affectivity that would be desired, and the relatively high heritability, which raises questions about what the SES distribution of this variable means. A major problem for interpreting the relation of dispositional optimism to health outcomes is that the term "pessimism" is sometimes used to refer to scores on the negatively-worded items and sometimes used to refer to scoring low on the overall scale; reanalyses of existing datasets could help to clarify this issue, inasmuch as negative expectations may be more potent than positive ones in association with SES and in predicting disease outcomes. The chief disadvantages of situational optimism measures are two: they change from study to study, depending on the stressor, and to the extent that a stressor is differentially interpreted or experienced as stressful by virtue of social class, the meaning of situationally optimistic expectancies may be unclear.

Network Usage

The study of HIV and Women (Taylor) includes measures of dispositional optimism, situational optimism, and hopelessness.

Conclusions

Although the literature is spare, investigations to date suggest considerable utility in exploring the relation of optimism/pessimism as a mediator or moderator of the SES and health relationship. Because of its brevity, ease of administration and scoring, and widespread use in studies of psychosocial adjustment and illness, the LOT is currently judged to be the best measure of optimism/pessimism for use in studies of the SES and health relationship.

A worthwhile hypothesis to pursue is that the negatively-worded items of the LOT assessing pessimism/negative expectations are more strongly related to SES and may also be more potent predictors of adverse health outcomes than the positively-worded items of the LOT.

Important priorities for continued investigation include an understanding of the origins and underpinnings of pessimism/negative expectations; exploration of the relation of dispositional and situational expectations to each other and their relative relation to SES and to health; and continued documentation of a relation of positive versus negative expectations to health and health-relevant outcomes, including indicators of allostatic load.

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Selected Bibliography

Antoni, M. H., & Goodkin, K. (1988). Host moderator variables in the promotion of cervical neoplasia. I: Personality facets. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 32, 327-338.

Bachen, E., Manuck, S., Muldoon, M., Cohen, S., & Rabin, B. (1991). [Effects of dispositional optimism on immunologic responses to laboratory stress.] Unpublished data.

Carver, C. S., & Scheier, M. F. (1981). Attention and self-regulation: A control-theory approach to human behavior. New York: Springer.

Carver, C. S., Scheier, M. F., & Weintraub, J. K. (1989). Assessing coping strategies: A theoretically based approach. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 56, 267-283.

Chesterman, E., Cohen, F., & Adler, N. (1990, June). Trait optimism as a predictor of pregnancy outcomes. Poster presentation at the First International Congress on Behavioral Medicine, Uppsala, Sweden.

Cohen, F., Kearny, K. A., Zegans, L. S., Kemeny, M. E., Neuhaus, J. M., & Stites, D. P. (1997). Acute stressors, chronic stressors, and immune parameters, and the role of optimism as a moderator. Manuscript in preparation.

Everson et al. (1996). Hopelessness and risk of mortality and incidence of myocardial infarction and cancer. Psychosomatic Medicine, 58, 113-121.

Fitzgerald, T. E., Tennen, H., Affleck, G., & Pransky, G. S. (1993). The relative importance of dispositional optimism and control appraisals in quality of life after coronary bypass surgery, Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 16, 25-43.

Kamen-Siegel, L., Rodin, J., Seligman, M. E. P., & Dwyer, J. (1991). Explanatory style and cell-mediated immunity in elderly men and women. Health Psychology, 10, 229-235.

Kemeny, M. E., Reed, G. M., Taylor, S. E., Visscher, B. R., & Fahey, J. L. (1996). Negative HIV-specific expectancies predict immunologic evidence of HIV progression. Manuscript in preparation.

Leedham, B., Meyerowitz, B. E., Muirhead, J., & Frist, W. H. (1995). Positive expectations predict health after heart transplantation. Health Psychology, 14, 74-79.

Park, C. L., Moore, P. J., Turner, R. A., & Adler, N. E. (1997). The roles of constructive thinking and optimism in psychological and behavioral adjustment during pregnancy. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73, 584-592.

Peterson, C., Seligman, M. E. P., & Vaillant, G. E. (1988). Pessimistic explanatory style is a risk factor for physical illness: A thirty-five-year longitudinal study. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 55, 23-27.

Reed, G. M., Kemeny, M. E., Taylor, S. E., & Visscher, B. R. (in press). Negative HIV-specific expectancies and AIDS-related bereavement as predictors of symptom onset in asymptomatic HIV-positive gay men. Health Psychology.

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Reed, G. M., Kemeny, M. E., Taylor, S. E., Wang, H.-Y. J., & Visscher, B. R. (1994). Realistic acceptance as a predictor of decreased survival time in gay men with AIDS. Health Psychology, 13, 299-307.

Robinson-Whelan, S., Kim, C., MacCallum, R. C., & Kiecolt-Glaser, J. K. (1997). Distinguishing optimism from pessimism in older adults: Is it more important to be optimistic or not to be pessimistic? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73, 1345-1353.

Scheier, M. F., & Carver, C. S. (1985). Optimism, coping, and health: Assessment and implications of generalized outcome expectancies. Health Psychology, 4, 219-247.

Scheier, M. F., & Carver, C. S. (1991). [Dispositional optimism and adjustment to college.] Unpublished raw data.

Scheier, M. F., & Carver, C. S. (1992). Effects of optimism on psychological and physical well-being: Theoretical overview and empirical update. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 16, 201-228.

Scheier, M. F., Carver, C. S., & Bridges, M. W. (1994). Distinguishing optimism from neuroticism (and trait anxiety, self-mastery, and self-esteem): A reevaluation of the Life Orientation Test. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 67, 1063-1078.

Scheier, M. F., Matthews, K. A., Owens, J., Magovern, G. J., Sr., Lefebvre, R. C., Abbott, R. A., & Carver, C. S. (1989). Dispositional optimism and recovery from coronary artery bypass surgery: The beneficial effects on physical and psychological well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 57, 1024-1040.

Scheier, M. F., Weintraub, J. K., & Carver, C. S. (1986). Coping with stress: Divergent strategies of optimists and pessimists. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 57, 1024-1040.

Schulz, R., Bookwala, J., Knapp, J., et al. (1994, April 15). Pessimism and mortality in young and old recurrent cancer patients. Paper presented at the American Psychosomatic Society annual meetings, Boston, MA.

Segerstrom, S. C., Taylor, S. E., Kemeny, M. E., & Fahey, J. L. (in press). Effects of optimism and coping on stressor-related mood and immune changes. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Smith, T. W., Pope, M. K., Rhodewalt, F., & Poulton, J. L. (1989). Optimism, neuroticism, coping, and symptom reports: An alternative interpretation of the Life Orientation Test. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 56, 640-648.

Taylor, S. E., & Aspinwall, L. G. (1990). Psychological aspects of chronic illness. In G. R. VandenBos & P. T. Costa, Jr. (Eds.), Psychological aspects of serious illness (pp. 3-60). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Taylor, S. E., Kemeny, M. E., Aspinwall, L. G., Schneider, S. C., Rodriguez, R., & Herbert, M. (1992). Optimism, coping, psychological distress, and high-risk sexual behaviors among men at risk for AIDS. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 63, 460-473.

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