Published: 2010-03-02

‘Optimism is not simply the absence of pessimism, and well-being is not simply the absence of helplessness. (Peterson, 2006, pp. 122)

Within positive psychology, optimism has been conceptualised in several ways. This discussion will focus on the ‘explanatory style’ view (Buchanan & Seligman, 1995) of optimism and will show that whilst the theory has been well researched – with valid, reliable, flexible and complimentary measurements – its application in, for example, education has led to interventions primarily concerned with the treatment or prevention of depression rather than an extensive promotion of optimism for its own sake.

Given that the aim of positive psychology is to address the imbalance between the focus of psychology on dysfunction and optimal functioning, it is clear that the potential contribution of explanatory style of optimism has not yet been fully realised within positive psychology, particularly in schools and early years programmes.

This essay will first critically outline optimism as conceptualised by explanatory style in terms of its historical development, methods of measurement, evolutionary significance, origins, some key research findings and focus of interventions within education. It will then consider the implications for further research to heighten its contribution within positive psychology of education for children and young adults.

Explanatory Style and Dispositional Optimism

It is perhaps useful at this point to distinguish explanatory style from dispositional optimism (Carver and Scheier, 2002), which sees optimism as a broad personality trait characterised by a global expectation that more good things will happen than bad.

In contrast, the explanatory style view of optimism taps into the immediate reactive optimistic/pessimistic tendencies, which explain events and contribute to a person’s general optimistic/pessimistic coping response going forward.

The Learned Helpless Model

The learned helpless model (Overmier & Seligman, 1967) which predated, and is said (for example by, Peterson, 2006, pp. 122) to have perhaps pre-empted the empirical birth of positive psychology, found that when unable to respond in a controllable way to electric shocks, rats became helpless.

When the rats learnt that response-outcome was independent they became passive because there was no point in them doing anything. This model, however, did not account for individual differences when it was applied to people and did not consider the possibility of learned optimism.

The question arose as to why, in situations where there is no control over the outcome, some people give up more easily and succumb to depression while others do not. In the reformulation of the learned helplessness model Abramson, Seligman, & Teasdale (1978) applied the attribution theory (Weiner 1985; 1986), which described the pattern of causes people attribute to good or bad events in their lives.

This reformulated cognitive–behavioural approach believes that it is often the person’s habitual way of looking at experience – a person’s explanatory style – which determines how they explain an event they have experienced and influences their cognitive (optimistic/pessimistic) expectation of future events.

The Learned Helpless Model

The 3 Dimensions of Explanatory Style

Explanatory style consists of three dimensions: internal/external; stable/unstable and global/specific.

  1. Internal/external refers to whether or not a person believes that they have control or influence over events.
  2. The stable/unstable dimension represents whether a person believes a repeated event will be the same or subject to change.
  3. Global versus specific refers to whether or not a person’s explanation generalises the event to others beyond the specific event in hand.

For example the attributional style model believes that if a person has an explanatory style that tends to consider bad events as internal, stable and global they are said to have a pessimistic explanatory style because they see the bad experience or event as one that was their fault, will not change in the future and is generally problematic rather than specific to that particular event.

This contrasts with a person with an optimistic explanatory style who is said to explain the causes of negative events as external, unstable and specific. The optimistic person places no blame on themselves, believes there is room for change and that the bad experience was specific to that particular event and is not to be generalised to all others.

If a pleasing event is experienced an optimist would exhibit an internal, stable and global explanatory style, whereas a pessimist would be showing external, unstable and specific explanatory style. One’s explanatory style is believed to influence a person’s view of the future and as a result their projected perceptions and subsequent behaviour.

Historical Origins of Explanatory Style

It is perhaps the theory’s historical origins in traditional psychology which has meant that much of the research into explanatory style has focussed on preventing depression rather than the development of optimistic explanatory style from a very early age. I believe that this model has huge potential for application in education and schools.

It could provide the key to cognitions that lead to optimism and the benefits that this tendency potentially promotes such as academic achievement and self-actualisation – and many of the outcomes for the current Every Child Matters agenda, (Green paper 2003). A particular strength of the model is the methods of measurement.

Explanatory Style: Methods of Measurement

Good measures of constructs are paramount in psychology because they allow us to quantify and empirically test psychological theories in applied settings. There are several methods used to measure attributional style. Each has strengths and weaknesses but when used together or in specific situations they can be effective in assessing how people cognitively respond to good or bad events and their measures of optimism versus pessimism.


The Attributional Style Questionnaire

The Attributional Style Questionnaire (ASQ; Peterson, Semmel, von Baeyer, Abramson, Metalsky, & Seligman, et al., 1982) is the most commonly used assessment tool for adults. This self-report questionnaire contains 12 hypothetical situations: 6 negative and 6 positive.

For each scenario, the participants are asked to imagine the event happening to them and to decide what they believe the main cause of the situation to be. The respondents then have to rate these causes along the dimensions of internality, stability and globality.

There are other versions of the ASQ that have been developed to target specific audiences, for example the Academic ASQ was devised to measure explanatory style in relation to school achievement; the hypothetical events given to students reflected situations likely to occur in the school context.

The Children’s Attributional Style Questionnaire (CASQ; Kaslow, Tannenbaum, & Seligman, 1978) is a 48 item forced-choice questionnaire designed to be used with children as young as eight years old. Again, it consists of hypothetical scenarios (24 positive and 24 negative) however in this questionnaire the children have to choose from two statements explaining why the event took place. Whilst this restricted response method is not ideal it is important that measures enable research to include young children so developmental elements can be explored.

Constructed as a self-report questionnaire, the ASQ has limitations in terms of validity. It is assumed that the participant understands what is being asked and is giving an honest response.

There is always the possibility of demand characteristics or social desirability influencing respondents in their answers. Another issue with the ASQ is that in order to assess an individual’s explanatory style a researcher has to find participants who are able and willing to complete the questionnaire.

This in itself limits the number and type of people for whom explanatory style can be measured. It is important to consider possible sample bias when generalising findings to a wider population. Also the use of hypothetical scenarios, even though some are specific to certain target respondees, affects the ecological validity of the measure.

The extent to which participants would actually cognitively respond in the same way to the events if they were real, as opposed to hypothetical, is questionable. Real events are more meaningful and explanatory style would be influenced by other legitimate factors such as emotional response and personal relevance of the situation.

Because the ASQ measures assume explanatory style is enduring (except under the influence of successful intervention work) re-test reliability of the ASQ measures has been investigated. In its favour it was found, for example, by Golin, Sweeney, and Schoeffer, (1981) that, prior to any intervention, explanatory style is stable, showing the questionnaire to be reliable.


The Content Analysis of Verbatim Explanations Technique

To compliment and in some ways to compensate for the ASQ’s limitations the Content Analysis of Verbatim Explanations technique (CAVE; Peterson, Schulman, Castellon, & Seligman, 1992) was developed.

With this method, provided that a personally written document includes causal attributions of certain events is available, causal attributions are extracted and rated by trained but naïve researchers. While it is a time consuming and skilled method of analysis, attributions can be obtained from people who might otherwise be unavailable or unable to complete the ASQ. For example Mozart’s optimism was measured by Steptoe, Reivich & Seligman, (1993).

The method is high in ecological validity as the events are real and spontaneous so therefore more relevant and meaningful to the respondent.

Explanatory Style: Research Findings

This essay has so far shown that the theory behind ES has produced clear, logical and measurable dimensions. However, focus will now turn to what research evidence has shown to be particularly applicable to education and child psychology.

Unfortunately much of the research in explanatory style relates to this construct as a predictor of depression or other negative outcomes, and interventions have assumed its malleability and the potential for change to prevent depression in children and adolescents. For example, Nolen-Hoeksema, Girus & Seligman, (1985) found that PES was a significant predictor of depressive symptoms in later childhood; while Boman et al (2003) looked at PES and the development of anger in children.


The Penn Resilience Program

Seligman M, (1991) believes that optimism is imperative for academic achievement.

He maintains that aptitude and talent are not enough, suggesting ‘the notion of potential, without the notion of optimism, has very little meaning.’ (Seligman, 1991).

He applied and further developed the ABC model by Ellis, (1962), setting up a school-based resilience training program: the Penn Resilience Program (PRP) in the US and Australia. Now there are some resilience programs being piloted in UK, to be evaluated by London School of Economics.

Part of this program helps students to focus on their explanatory styles; where they find pessimistic ‘thinking styles’ they are trained to dispute these beliefs so as to generate more optimistic alternatives. It will be interesting to see if by developing this cognitive mode of attribution pupils will improve their educational performance, examinations, creativity, social emotional development and psychological well-being.


The Optimistic Explanatory Style

The development of OES may also have the potential improve race relations, equal opportunity, gender and identity for school aged individuals.

But research needs to consider whether there are there individual differences in the ability to learn optimism? Is OES good in all situations and for everyone? Norem, (2002) believes that for some people OES actually interferes with their optimal functioning defensive pessimism response strategy.

Also, some researchers believe that it is important to promote realistic optimism but avoid the dangers of self-deception. For example in his book, The Optimistic Child (pp. 298, 1995) Seligman advocates teaching children ‘accurate optimism.’

However, if interventions involve changing a persons ES from PES to OES then psychology is still mending what is broken. In positive psychology we need to find out what aspects of cognition and behaviour lead to good outcomes such as achievement, self-actualisation and well-being.

Some research has done this in relation to ES; for example Peterson, & Barrett, (1987) found that university students who, at the beginning of the year displayed a OES, achieved higher grades in their freshman year than students who used a PES.

This was after ability and depression levels were held constant. Another study by Bridges, (2000) found that ASQ measures were not as reliable as predictors of academic performance in comparison to Scholastic Assessment Scores (SATs).

Generally, there is not enough research relating to optimistic explanatory style and its benefits to positive psychology in education.

Prior to the reformulation of the Learned Helplessness model, and not in the name of positive psychology, Weiner focused his attribution theory on achievement and the difference between motivation of high and low achievers (Weiner, 1974).

His theory has been applied to education and human motivation (Weiner, 1980). In some ways the original attribution theory has contributed more to positive psychology than the new one, which incorporates the idea of an OES.

The Optimistic Explanatory Style teaching children

Further Research

If further research is required, because several theories of achievement overlap with the attribution reformulation of the learned helplessness theory, links between ES and other constructs associated with positive psychology could be explored. For example is there a relationship between Optimism and self-efficacy? (Bandura, 1982).

Does explanatory style correlate with Emotional Intelligence? Does it affect how we manage our emotions? Does ES relate to positive emotions? (Fredrickson, 2001). Is there any relationship between OES and time perspective? (Boniwell and Zimbardo, 2004). How does optimism and attribution style affect goal orientation and hope? (Snyder, 2002).

Is optimism a precursor of hope and therefore leads to agency, goal setting, high achievement and subjective well-being? For example, if a pupil has an unstable internal outlook then s/he will realise that their efforts will have consequences and if these are coupled with realistic goal-setting then high achievement and well-being would intuitively seem inevitable.

Research in optimistic explanatory style should focus on explanations for success and future high achievement. Future research needs to continue to address the imbalance between traditional psychology and positive psychology as optimistic explanatory style has a huge potential to impact education.

Early intervention could promote the development of OES and prevent the onset of PES. Optimistic attribution style could be engendered in younger school-aged children with age-specific activities such as games, role-plays, stories as well as discussions need to be devised. For this to be evidence-based a fuller understanding of the development and causes of ES needs to be achieved.

Psychologists have referred to optimistic explanatory style in terms of its contribution to evolutionary psychology. As man’s cognitive abilities have evolved, so too has our ability to conceptualise the future, including bad things that could happen any time. Seligman (1991) believes that pessimistic thoughts are “primitive reminders of needs and of dangers,” serving as a defence mechanism when physical protection was of greater importance in our evolutionary development. At our present stage of evolution it is perhaps optimism, which is more useful in sustaining mental well-being since in modern-day existence we are more likely to face mental, cognitive, emotional challenges than physical ones.

Setting aside the evolutionary origin of optimism, research into causes and influences of explanatory style so far has not gone beyond correlation methodology. Although research has spanned both sides of the nature/nurture debate, with genetic twin studies (for example, Schulman, Keith & Seligman, 1991), and environmental influences such as the impact of explanatory style of parents (Seligman et al. 1984) and performance feedback from teachers (Dweck et al. 1978); such findings remain inconclusive because research has not yet tapped into the complexity of the factors which contribute to its development.

It is still not known exactly how optimistic explanatory style is developed within individuals. More detailed and sensitive research is required, especially longitudinal, cross-lifespan and cross-cultural studies.

If further research discovers that optimistic explanatory style leads to positive outcomes and we learn what causes and influences its development then psychologists can focus interventions to promote the development of optimistic explanatory style in early years rather than attempting to change an individual’s pessimistic explanatory style in early adolescence and beyond.

Positive psychologists need to know how to promote the natural development of OES rather than only aim to change it within individuals through interventions at a later stage. If we know that parents and teachers can influence the development of optimistic explanatory style then strategies can be implemented in parenting style and teacher training for early years and beyond.


Some research suggests that the development of optimism through OES can help children and young people but its contribution so far is limited. There are still far more studies related to the mental health medical model of mending what is broken or the purely preventative approach rather than the promotion of its development early on.

Originally Peterson, Maier & Seligman (1993) put forward the idea that what was learnt about learned helplessness could inform us about optimism but in view of the development and aims of positive psychology this is not good enough.

Peterson believes:

‘research on learned optimism will not be as substantial as it might be if it remains closely tied to helplessness theory.’ (Peterson 2006, pp. 122).

We need to continue preventative interventions but if OES is to make a truly significant contribution, research must focus on what causes its development and how this can really be promoted for the benefit of well-being and other related constructs in positive psychology.


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