Learned Optimism

Book notes

This is my summary and notes for the book “Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life” written by the American psychologist Martin Seligman.

By default, you can consider that the ideas under the section “Notes” are either the author’s own ideas or my interpretation of them. When writing my own thoughts and ideas, or when I am expanding on the author’s ideas, I enclose them in braces “{this is my own thought on the subject}”.

See goodreads reviews or buy the book.

Seligman is a Penn State Ph. D in Psychology. He is one of the main proponents of “positive psychology”, which is psychology studies focused on “positive” topics instead of “negative” ones (eg. research focused on quality of life instead of illness; or why people succeed instead of why people fail). It is psychology focused on researching how to promote positive outcomes instead of merely avoiding or reverting negative ones. It can be considered a reaction against psychology focused mainly on mental illness and deviant behavior. In fact, he has written the book “Character Strengths and Virtues” as a counterpart to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).

Learned Optimism covers the author’s ideas on the concepts of helplessness, pessimism and optimism, based on extensive scientific research made by him and other people.

Notes (Chapters 1 to 3)

Pessimism and optimism are two ways of looking at life. Pessimists are more likely to suffer from depression and to be low achievers. The author sees pessimism and optimism as learnable skills or changeable habits as opposed to being inherent traits.

Helplessness is when our actions have no noticeable effects. A newborn can’t decide to do anything. At some point, he learns to cry, and that’s all he is able to do that has any impact on his life (eg. when he cries his parents might show up to check on him). In life, we go from being totally helpless as babies to having increasing control over our lives as we grow. As adults, we can take infinite decisions that all have some impact on our lives and our future. In our last years, the degree in which we control our lives starts to decrease, possibly climbing back to levels similar to when we were newborns as our physical and cognitive capabilities decline.

If someone went to you at work and suddenly accused you of stealing, how would you react? The natural reaction would be to deny, argue, and discuss, possibly furiously. If you were to be fired for stealing something when you did not do it, you would probably get mad at the injustice and possibly do what you can to repair the damage or undo it. You might even seek revenge. You can reach out to superior people, you can sue the company and the people who treated you badly. Instead, people who think themselves helpless and are overly pessimistic might watch things roll out passively, waiting for others to decide their fate. They might even accept it, remembering that times from their past when they cheated in an exam or did anything immoral, and see the present situation as just a delayed punishment for their past sins.

Psychology research used to be based on considering people as pure products of their environments. Little thought was given to how people’s own actions and thoughts could affect their minds and personal outcomes. Freud believed that everything was the fault of your mom and dad, and that you secretly want to fuck or/and kill each of them. Skinner and his behaviorism psychology believed that behavior was molded mainly by external reinforcement. Ethologists used genetic influences to explain behavior. Others viewed human actions as a pure product of biological drives and needs.

Theories in psychology started to change from focusing on the environmental effects on people’s lives to start focusing on the effects of individual actions (thoughts, behaviors, preferences, decisions). {This was part of a bigger change in society: changes in the labour market and the development of new technologies increased the amount of choices people could make, and the effects of their choices on their lives became apparent. Such societal change coincided with changes in the rate of depression. Several studies have demonstrated that people suffer from depression at alarmingly higher rates when compared to people from decades ago. The age of the self is the age of innovation, new technologies, control, personal freedom, but also the age of depression, suicide, the glorification of appearances, and the reward of confidence over real competence. For a majority of people nowadays appearing to be right is better and preferred than being right.}

{Society has changed in the past decades. Before people had god, community, homeland and patriotism, family; in other words, communal values. Society has shifted to value individualism over community. Our lives changed from communal activities to individual activities. Not all of that has completely gone away, but some of them will shortly and overall their importance has decreased greatly.}

Depression has traditionally been explained by two main theories: psychoanalytic and biomedical. The psychoanalytic view is based on Freud’s ideas and claims that depression is anger against ourselves and based on mistakes, blame, and guilt over our past actions. The biomedical model explains depression as a consequence of chemical imbalances in the brain. As such, it seeks to treat depression with medication or treatments such as shock therapy. Although there is enough evidence to suggest that medical imbalances can cause depression, and many medications have good effects on treating depression, it doesn’t explain the whole issue. There are different degrees of depression, and traditional treatments such as medication cannot treat cases of mild depression, even though their effects can be as devastating in the long-term as the severe cases of depression.

There is also a promotion in helplessness when people must rely on medication to have a “normal” life, and getting their hands on these medications can only be made legally through the goodwill of some people. The author argues that other than a minority of cases, depression is usually not caused by chemical imbalances that can only be reasonably treated through medication. It is actually some kind of “severe low mood” that arises from the way we view and explain things that happen in our lives and how we react to them. According to him, pessimist beliefs are one of the core root causes of depression.

Theory of personal control, or Learned helplessness theory

Learned helplessness is learning to develop a quitting response. This theory has been developed by the author and other researchers through many studies. The studies demonstrated that dogs can develop a sense of helplessness, in other words, they understood when their actions were futile. That sense of helplessness transferred to different contexts.

One of the studies separated dogs into two groups. Both of them were subjected to physical pain through electrical shocks. For one of them, the pain was random and there was no way for the dogs to make it stop. The other group was also subjected to physical pain, but there was a way to stop the shocks through a physical mechanism that the dogs were able to learn. After that, the two groups were put in another place and also given shocks there. This time, to stop the pain all they had to do was to jump a simple barrier and go to the place where the shocks were not applied. The dogs from the second group quickly learned how to jump the barrier and avoid the pain. The dogs from the first group did not even try to stop the pain, having learned in another context that their actions wouldn’t affect their outcome, even though that was not the case anymore.

“With regard to learned helplessness, Steve and I believed the dogs were just lying there because they had learned that nothing they did mattered—and they therefore expected that no actions of theirs would matter in the future. Once they formed this expectation, they would no longer engage in action.”

The experiment was repeated with some variations, and similar experiments were performed in humans as well, all pointing to the existence of “learned helplessness” in both animals and humans.

The results from the author’s research challenged the traditional ideas in psychology at the time that was controlled by the behaviorists. This new group that challenged the behaviorists are called cognitivists. It took time and many experiments to counter their objections and become an accepted idea. Behaviorists put up a fight and engaged in what is commonly known as “adding epicycles”. This phrase came from the act of astronomers who defended that the sun traveled around the Earth to “add epicycles”, or small circles within a greater circle, in order to explain and defend their idea against increasingly observations and facts pointing to the Earth traveling around the Sun.

“The phrase “adding epicycles” came to be applied to scientists in any field who, having trouble defending a tottering thesis, desperately postulate unlikely subtheses in hopes of buttressing it.”

{Helplessness is such a terrible feeling that the CIA developed their own “learned helplessness” program in which detainees were subjected to persistent torture to make detainees develop a sense of helplessness and start giving information.}

Explanatory style

Explanatory style is a way to assess how people explain to themselves and to the world why events happen. If you won the lottery, or if you are promoted, or if your crush rejects you, how do you tend to explain those events? Of course, each case is different and will have a different explanation, but there are some underlying patterns and motivations that can be detected and categorized. These explanatory styles can be used to assess how optimist or pessimist a person is, and also how likely she is to suffer from depression or helplessness.

There are three dimensions for a person’s explanatory style: permanence, pervasiveness, and personalization. Each dimension has an optimistic and a pessimistic style.


Permanence is about how people view the persistence of events. The words always and never are related to a permanent style, while words like sometimes and lately and other qualifiers are related to a temporary style. A person with a permanent style tends to view event consequences as long-lasting and permanent, and they explain them this way. For instance, saying “I missed this appointment because I was occupied doing something else” indicates a temporary explanation style, while saying “I missed this appointment because I am bad at remembering my schedule” indicates a permanent explanation style. Saying “I forgot to submit my homework last week because I was busy watching Netflix” indicates a temporary style while saying “I forgot to submit my homework last week because I am always busy watching Netflix” or “I always forget to submit my homework because I watch too much Netflix” indicates a permanent style.

Failure makes everyone at least momentarily helpless. It’s like a punch in the stomach. It hurts, but the hurt goes away—for some people almost instantly. … For others, the hurt lasts; it seethes, it roils, it congeals into a grudge. … They remain helpless for days or perhaps months, even after only small setbacks. After major defeats they may never come back.

The pessimist permanent style means that the person believes bad events have permanent causes (I was bad at X situation because I am always bad at Y), while the optimist permanent style means that the person believes that good events have permanent causes (I did well at X because I am good at Y). So, you can have a tendency to explain bad events in either permanent or temporary ways, and a separated tendency to explain good events in either permanent or temporary ways.

People who believe good events have permanent causes try even harder after they succeed. People who see temporary reasons for good events may give up even when they succeed, believing success was a fluke.

Explaining bad events using permanent style (pessimist signal)

  • “She never talks to me”
  • “I never set time to study”
  • “I never do things I plan to do”
  • “You always ignore me”

Explaining bad events using temporary style (optimist signal)

  • “She haven’t been talking to me lately”
  • “I haven’t set up time to study in the past month”
  • “Lately, I haven’t done things I have decided to do”
  • “You ignore me when you are not in a good mood”

Explaining good events using permanent style (optimist signal)

  • “I was luycky that day”
  • “I studied hard”
  • “The other teams played bad”

Explaining good events using temporary style (pessimist signal)

  • “I am lucky”
  • “I am intelligent”
  • “My rival is no good”

Pervasiveness: Specific vs. Universal

Permanence is about time. Pervasiveness is about space.

How does one event in your life affect other events? If something good happens in one area of your life, does it permeates to other areas? For instance, if you study hard and do incredibly well in an exam, does this give you confidence and energy to pursue other things, maybe asking someone special out or taking a new hobby? At the same time, how do bad events affect your overall life? If something bad happens in some area of your life, does it affect the others? If you are fired from your job and start feeling unaccomplished and incompetent, do you also start doubting whether you are a good parent to your child or a good lover to your partner, even though the setback at work did not affect and is not related to those other areas?

People who make universal explanations for their failures give up on everything when a failure strikes in one area. People who make specific explanations may become helpless in that one part of their lives yet march stalwartly on in the others.

Explaining bad events using universal style (pessimist signal):

  • “All bosses are terrible”
  • “I am ugly”
  • “University is useless”

Explaining bad events using specific style (optimist signal):

  • “My current boss is terrible”
  • “This person thinks I am ugly”
  • “My University is useless”

Explaining good events using specific style (pessimist signal):

  • “I am good at math”
  • “I did a good work at this project”

Explaining good events using universal style (optimistic signal):

  • “I am good at things I do”
  • “The projects I work succeed”

Personalization: Internal vs. External

Do you blame things on yourself or on external factors? Do you blame bad things on external factors, and attribute good things to yourself? Or the other way around? When we blame ourselves we internalize them, when we blame external factors we externalize them.

People who blame themselves when they fail have low self-esteem as a consequence. They think they are worthless, talentless, and unlovable. People who blame external events do not lose self-esteem when bad events strike. On the whole, they like themselves better than people who blame themselves do. Low self-esteem usually comes from an internal style for bad events.

Explaining bad events using internal style (low self-steem signal):

  • “I am dumb”
  • “I haven’t study hard”
  • “I am not talented at X”

Explaining bad events using external style (high self-steem signal):

  • “You are dumb”
  • “I did not receive educational opportunities”
  • “I am not lucky at X”

Explaining good events using internal style (high self-steem signal):

  • “I played well or I worked well”
  • “I studied and worked hard to achieve things”

Explaining good events using external style (low self-steem signal):

  • “The team played well or The team worked well”
  • “My parents provided me with good opportunities”


Hope has largely been the province of preachers, of politicians, and of hucksters. The concept of explanatory style brings hope into the laboratory, where scientists can dissect it in order to understand how it works.

Whether or not we have hope depends on two dimensions of our explanatory style: pervasiveness and permanence. Finding temporary and specific causes for misfortune is the art of hope: Temporary causes limit helplessness in time, and specific causes limit helplessness to the original situation. On the other hand, permanent causes produce helplessness far into the future, and universal causes spread helplessness through all your endeavors. Finding permanent and universal causes for misfortune is the practice of despair.

People who make permanent and universal explanations for their troubles tend to collapse under pressure, both for a long time and across situations.

{It seems this is the famous half full/half empty glass thinking.}

Explanatory style test

{It seems Seligman has developed many kinds of psychological tests and I couldn’t pinpoint exactly which one is part of the book.}

My results for this test are:

  • 6/8 on “Permanent bad” score, indicating that I am “quite pessimistic” in the pessimistic permanence dimension
  • 4/8 in “Permanent good” score, indicating that I am “average” in the optimistic permanence dimension
  • 4/8 in “Pervasiveness bad” score, indicating that I am “average” in the pessimistic pervasiveness dimension
  • 2/8 in “Pervasiveness good” score, indicating that I am “very pessimistic” in the optimistic pervasiveness dimension
  • 7/8 in “Personalization bad” score, indicating that I have “very low self-esteem”
  • 4/8 in “Personalization good” score, indicating that I am “average” in terms of optimistic personalization

These scores can be used to calculate aggregate scores:

  • 9/16 in Hope, indicating that I am “moderately hopeless”
  • 10/24 in Good score, indicating “great pessimism”
  • -6 when calculating (Good minus Bad score), indicating that I am “very pessimistic”

{We all have the tendency to rationalize and support whatever results come up from these types of tests. Who wants to waste 20 minutes of their lives doing some test like this and then say “what a stupid test, it got all wrong” when you can just formulate evidence and arguments to support whatever result comes up, as long as the result pleases you somehow? That considered, I found that this was an interesting result. I do have a tendency of isolating good events to their own areas, which is indicated by the “pervasiveness good” low score. I also have a high tendency to personalize bad events, indicated by the low “personalization bad” score.}

Some notes about explanatory styles

{This test indicates that certain behaviors are good in some situations and allegedly bad in other situations. According to the test, it is good to take responsibility for your own actions when good events happen, but the best thing to do when bad events happen would be to blame them on someone else. This is an interesting insight because it is not about what is moral or the correct thing to do, just what kind of explanatory style brings positive or negative individual psychological outcomes. The author touches on this point. For instance, he advocates for people to have an internal style for bad events because that’s the right thing to do and that’s more valuable in the long run, even at the potential cost of some higher psychological suffering or the need to compensate for it in other dimensions to not let this affect their whole lives.}

Chapter 4

There are three types of depression:

  • normal depression: mild depression, which is common in everyone’s lives.
  • unipolar depression: depression without manic episodes.
  • bipolar depression: clinical depression with mania.

Depression causes four types of negative changes:

  • thought: pessimism regarding the future, low self-esteem, hopelessness
  • mood: sadness, discouragement, despair, crying episodes, anxiety, irritability, numbness
  • behavior: passivity, indecisiveness, suicidal thoughts and actions. hard to start activities, and gives up on them easily
    • suicide behavior can be separated into two main motives: 1) stop the pain 2) manipulate others (eg. seek revenge and inflict pain in others or seek to be loved/get attention)
  • physical responses: decreased appetite and libido; insomnia. morning insomnia is common, when the person wakes up way too early and can’t get back to sleep, making them start the day exhausted.

There has been research about the prevalence of depression in US population:

  • ECA (epidemiological catchment area) showed a large difference in the lifetime prevalence of depression (ie. percentage of people who have suffered from depression at least one in their life) among generations. It is expected that older people might display a higher prevalence, they just have more years in their life. However, newer generations present a much higher prevalence of depression
  • A followup study confirmed these findings. It also showed that women suffer from depression twice as much as man; and that the average age for the first episode of depression is much lower for younger generations.

{Not only older people should have a higher depression prevalence because they have more time to have suffered in life, but today’s living standards are much higher than the previous generations. TODO find newer statistics, maybe try to find or combine some data showing depression prevalence by generation up to the current year. What are some interesting trends on this? (eg. has gender difference changed over time? do people who migrate suffer more or less from depression? what about economical conditions? what about childhood predictability? are there differences between people with larger or smaller families? what about heavy users of social media? what countries suffer more or less from depression? are there professions with higher/lower depression prevalence?)}

The prevailing medical opinion is that both unipolar and bipolar depression are illness, while normal depression is just a case of bad mood. The author argues that bipolar depression is a illness and caused mainly by chemichal imbalances treated with lithium, but that there are not much difference between normal depression and unipolar depression, except for major cases of unipolar depression. Bipolar depression is inherited, but unipolar is hardly so.

There are no major biological changes that can explain the dramatic increase in depression occurrence for just single generations. The author experiments with rats, dogs, and people, has modeled depression using the helpless model. After demonstrating the effects of helplessness, he has proceeded to demonstrate that the subjects suffering from helplessness suffered from depression by checking their depression symptoms.

The nine symptoms of depression according to DSM-III-R:

  1. Depressed mood
  2. Loss of interest in usual activities
  3. Loss of appetite
  4. Insomnia
  5. Psychomotor retardation (slow thought or movement)
  6. Loss of energy
  7. Feelings of worthlessness and guilt
  8. Diminished ability to think and poor concentration
  9. Suicidal thought or action

{The author has demonstrated that his helplessness experiments indeed serve as a good model for depression, but haven’t yet explained whether and why people would feel more helpless today when compared to 100 years ago. He is arguing that helplessness is a cause for depression and that helplessness has become more common recently, causing a surge in depression. Much like a new virus or a mass poisoning could cause a surge in a specific disease. If that’s the case, what is causing an increase in helplessness? Which specific cultural or economical changes might have been causing that? How does that compare across cultures and countries?}

Chapter 5

Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck developed the first forms of Cognitive behavioral therapy. Before their work, the accepted idea in the field was that depression was a very complex disease, either caused by chemical imbalances (Biomedical school) or by deep unresolved psychological problems associated with guilt and shame (Freud school).

Ellis’s first works were in the field of sexuality, where he promoted sexual liberation in the context of psychology. Later he started studying depression. Based on his clinical practice, he identified that a depressed person has a pattern of pessimism and low self-esteem. He questioned whether that negative thinking pattern was not a symptom of depression, but the disease itself. He even questioned whether the then accepted-wisdom of depression as a complex disease that can only be treated through complicated and extensive medical interventions and medical monitoring was causing people to essentially feel helpless regarding their own ability to deal with their problems and worsening their depression.

Another psychologist at the time, Joseph Wolpe, started challenging the accepted notions regarding phobias. The accepted theories regarding phobia were pretty much the same as the ones for depression, Wolpe challenged that notion and developed what eventually became the “graduated exposure therapy” treatment, or desensitization. Essentially, Wolpe argued that the irrational fear was the disease itself, and not a symptom of a larger and obscure disease called phobia. By using techniques learned from Ivan Pavlov’s work, Wolpe developed treatments first with animals and then with humans that cured phobias in a couple of months. Contrary to the then accepted beliefs, once the specific fear was cured, people hardly relapsed and did not develop another similar irrational fear due to untreated psychological or biological causes; indicating that the fear itself was the disease.

The book author, Martin Seligman, partnered with Beck at the end of the 60s to study depression together. Their work gave a start to the first techniques associated with cognitive therapy. The goal of cognitive therapy is to identify bad thinking patterns and convert them into good patterns, such as converting a pessimist explanatory style into an optimistic one.

We all experiment failures in life. Failure produces helplessness. After facing a similar failure, some people go through a brief period of feeling helpless, and others go through weeks or months feeling helpless. As demonstrated by studies, helplessness causes eight of the nine symptoms of depression. How long you feel helpless affects how long you feel depressed. Clinical depression requires five of those nine symptoms, and that they occur through at least two weeks. If you feel helpless for more than two weeks, you have clinical depression.

People who have a pessimistic explanatory style (personal, permanent, and pervasive explanations for bad events) feel helpless longer, causing depression.

This is the central prediction from my theory: People who have a pessimistic explanatory style and suffer bad events will probably become depressed, whereas people who have an optimistic explanatory style and suffer bad events will tend to resist depression. If this is so, then pessimism is a risk factor for depression in just the same sense as smoking is a risk factor for lung cancer or being a hostile, hard-driving man is a risk factor for heart attack.

That idea has been tested for many years, to test against reversed causality (depression causing pessimism) or correlation (since there is an intersection between pessimism ideas and the depression symptoms used for diagnosis, there could be just a correlation between pessimist people and depressed people). One study followed students from the start of classes until the end. After being asked what failure in class would look like to them and assessing their explanatory style. People who failed according to their own definition and had a pessimist explanatory style got depressed at a rate of 70%, as compared to around 30% of people who failed but did not have a pessimist explanatory style, and 30% of all pessimists no matter if they failed or not. The combination of failure (helpless) and pessimism produce much higher rates of depression. Another experiment was conducted in prison, demonstrating that the pessimist detainees suffered more from depression on leaving prison than those who were not pessimists. Another one followed 400 third-grader students through years that demonstrated the same pattern: the pessimist students were much likely to develop depression or to suffer from it for an extensive period of time than the non-pessimist students.

These and other experiments demonstrated that by assessing the explanatory style of a group of people, it was possible to predict those who would suffer from depression based on that. Still, they did not prove that pessimism caused depression. They indicated that the reversal causality didn’t hold, since these studies identified pessimist people before they suffered from depression. But pessimism could be just a signal: those people could have another characteristic (either psychological or biological) that caused them to react badly and become depressive upon failure, and after realizing that they became pessimists. In other words, there could be a correlation between the two, but not a causal relationship. This has been researched by experimenting with cognitive therapy to change depressed pessimists’ explanatory style. People who changed their explanatory style did not stay depressed and had few relapses. Meanwhile, people who received only medical treatment did not stay depressed as well, but they relapsed frequently once medication stopped. Those who did not receive medical treatment and did not undergo therapy to change their explanatory style stayed depressed. If there was no causal relationship between the explanatory style and depression, changing the explanatory style wouldn’t cause people to stop being depressed. There are other causes for depression as well, such as genetic influences, failures and bad events occurrence, hormones and other biological influences; but pessimism has been demonstrated to be one of the major causes.

If you walk around disposed to believe of any problem that “it’s me, it’s going to last forever, it’s going to undermine everything I try,” you are set up for depression. But just because you may be disposed to think this way doesn’t necessarily mean you frequently utter such thoughts to yourself. Some people do, some don’t. People who mull over bad events are called ruminators.

There are optimist and pessimist ruminators, and there are optimist and pessimist people who do not ruminate. Non-ruminators are usually action-oriented: instead of think about how bad things are, they think about what they are going to do. Rumination creates a feedback-loop: once the person feels helpless upon facing some bad event, they explain the event in a pessimistic way (the explanation arrives at the conclusion that the cause is permanent, pervasive, and personal), and that makes the person consciously expect to stay helpless. Rumination reinforces this cycle.

Research showed that women have a depression rate twice as high as men. The author argues that rumination is the root of that situation. The three main theories explaining men vs women depression occurrence are:

  • sex and gender roles and expectations cause women to be more depressed since they are taught to value social relationships as opposed to achievements, causing them to have lower self-esteem. Also, women have to assume more roles (eg. be the main caretaker, organize the household, and also work), which makes them more susceptible to experience failures.
  • women experience more helplessness due to cultural differences in appreciation and recognition. boys receive more attention from parents on childhood, and as adults men are more valued and their contributions are more recognized than women.

These two theories are more or less debunked or have demonstrated to not impact enough to properly explain the 2-1 rate difference. The third theory is that rumination is the cause of the difference. The concept of rumination and its role in this gender difference was developed by psychologist Susan Nolen-Hoeksema.

  • women ruminate more than men, especially in face of failures. the author says that in face of failure, men tend to act (eg. if fired they either go get drunk to forget about it or they instantly start looking for a new job) while women tend to think (eg. if fired, they tend to take time to analyze and understand what happened before making decisions and acting). this behavior difference has been demonstrated by research. although men and women experiment the same rate of mild depression, those who ruminate tend to have their mil depression escalate into something bigger. {the author doesn’t argue that women think and act differently due to any natural biological differences, he only states that they act that way, without speculating about the causes. it is possible that on average women do act differently than men in terms of rumination, and that difference might be explained by sexism in education and culture. if that’s the case, should we expect this 2-1 rate to become closer as societies progress in terms of gender equality?} {this whole concept of rumination indicates that the best way to handle distress or failures is to not analyze or bury yourself into it, at least in the aftermath of the problem. that’s a good excuse to drink away the pain. what is the optimum amount of time after a failure that you can focus on the problem and analyze what went wrong without increasing your odds of getting depressed? how do you balance the need for self-reflection in face of problems and the need for distracting yourself to not wallow yourself in misery?}

Until recently, traits were used to explain human actions: people were lazy, mean, criminal, noble, generous, and that’s why they did what they did. Being personality traits, they were hardly changed. A bad person committed crimes because they were bad. A dumb person didn’t study or changed their career because they were dumb. These explanations for failure changed through time and started focusing on the environment: someone committed a crime because they were raised in poverty and unstable homes; someone was dumb because they didn’t have accessed to education or suffered from lead water poisoning. This change of interpretation is related to the development of Behaviorism, and it is also behind the recent new-age trend of self-help movements {did I hear quantum coaching?}. Despite the hijack by those self-help movements, the authors argue that they are correct, at least superficially:

A culture believing in self-improvement will support health clubs, Alcoholics Anonymous, and psychotherapy. A culture believing that bad action stems from bad character and is permanent won’t even try.

Cognitive therapy uses five tactics to treat depression:

  1. Identify automatic thoughts that came up to your mind at bad times. A mother might frequently tell herself “I am a bad mother” each time she acts in a way that she doesn’t want to her child (eg. when she screams them), or a person might think “I am useless or I am weird” when they have an anxiety crisis. These automatic thoughts are a result of the person’s explanatory style.
  2. Consciously argue against these automatic thoughts. After identifying them, find contrary evidence and remember about them in moments of crisis.
  3. Through cognitive restructuring, aka reattribution, come up with different explanations that you can use instead of the automatic explanations you used to use. This alternative explanation should use a better explanatory style (eg. less pervasive, permanent, and personal). Instead of thinking “I am a terrible mother”, the mother might learn to explain her failures in terms of (“I good with the kids after their school, but I am not by best when dealing with the kids in the morning”)
  4. Start distracting yourself from depressive thoughts and avoid rumination. You can adopt strategies like go watch a movie, play some game, or whatever it takes to cool down before your start analyzing the situation. Sometimes you don’t even need to analyze the situation. Something bad happens, all you can and should do is to accept it and move on.
  5. Recognize values and assumptions that contribute to depression and change them. (eg. “I can’t live without love” to “Love is precious but rate”; “Things need to be perfect otherwise I have failed” to “The important thing is to do my best”)

Chapters 6, 7 & 8

Explanatory style and optimism at work

The author has conducted research on Metropolitan Life, then one of the largest insurance companies in the United States. Until then the company used an aptitude test called Career Profile to decide who to hire for life insurance salesman positions. The company suffered from high turnover, as it is common in the area. More than 50% of people quit before the first year, causing high loses in training and reduced expansion capacity tot he company due to the lack of people. The author’s interest relied on the opposite idea from his previous work: instead of focusing on identifying people who were more likely to suffer depression, he was looking to identify those who were most likely to succeed. Having an already stablished process through a standized test was great to provide control groups.

Being a salesperson is not an easy job. People must be able to handle constant rejection. Each 10 calls to prospects might achieve one followup. Some of these followups will end up buying the product. Suffering from constant setbacks and defeats, it was reasonable to suspect that optimist people would fare better than pessimist people, and the former would be less likely to abandon the job.

The author formulated a test called Attributional Style Questionnaire (ASQ) to determine a person explanatory style. He then did several experiments. One of them assesed a group of high-productive sales agents and another group of low-productive sales agents. The agents of the most optimistic half of the spectrum sold 37% more than the industry aveerage, while the 10% more optimistic sold 88% more than the most 10% pessimistic. Future experiments indicated similar results. The final experiment consisted in having an alternative hiring process as opposed to using the traditional Career Profile questionaire. In this experiment, people who ranked high in the ASQ test but failed the Career Profile were hired. Collectively, this group of people who wouldn’t have been hired using the existing process due to their lower soce in the Career Profile end up having excellent productivity. The company has changed their hiring policy based on these experiments and started using the explanatory style questionnaire as part of their hiring process, allowing people who score higher in the ASQ to be hired even if they fail the Career Profile test.

Empirical versus theory-based tests

Empiral and theory-based tests are the two main types of tests used to predict potential for success.

Empirical tests use empirical evidence to predict future outcome: given a group of successful people, or a group of people who did not achieve success, come up with as many questions as possible, get their answers, and use the common answers as basis for predicting outcome for other people.

Theory-based tests like IQ tests or SAT are baed on a theory, and try to assess people according to that theory. For instance, the theory behind SAT is that academical success is heavily influenced by a certain types of skills, namely mathematical-analytic skills and verbal skills. The ASW questionaire created by the authors to assess job application suitability for a insurance sales position is also a theory-based test: it is based on the theory that optimistic people will have a higher degree of success at that position than pessimistic people, and that these traits or skills can be assesed through their explanatory styles.

Is there a role for pessimism in life?

Is there a role for pessimism in life? Is there a role for pessimism in the workplace? Did pessimism represent any advantage in any kind of situation?

The evidence exist to suggest that pessimism and depression lead people to see reality more accurately when compared to non-depressed and optimist people.

A experiment conducted by Lauren Alloy and Lyn Abramson asked people to judge how much control they had over a light switch. A group interacted with a perfectly functioning light switch, while other interacted with a light switch that did not work and the light behavior was controlled by the researchers. When judging their control over the light switch and the light behavior depressed people were accurate: they correctly identified when the light switch worked and the light went on or off based on their actions, and they also identified when they had no control over the light because it went on or off no mater what they did. Nondepressed people, however, highly overestimated their degree of control in the helpless situation. The researchers did additional experiments adding monetary incentives, and again nondepressed people were unreliable: when the experiment was rigged so that they would lose money, they would say they had less control than they actually had, and when the experiment was rigged to benefit them, they would say they had more control than they actually had (eg. someone claiming credit and responsibility for the good things that happened to them while putting blame on others/bad luck when bad things happened).

Another experiment put people in a situation where they had to present something to other people. Once again, depressed people were more able to realibly assess how good they performed while nondepressed people overestimated how good they were.

One more experiment put people in a lab, making them take a test and ensuring that they would be correct and wrong a certain number of times. For instance, each participant in the test got 20 questions correct and 20 questions wrong, and they were told their results. Later, when asked to recall their results, depressed people correctly remembered how many questions they got wrong and right, while nondepressed people distorted the past and claimed they got more questions right than they actually did. THat goes against the traditional wisdom that depressive people distort the past and see it in dark shadow, suggesting that they merely see the past as it is while nondepressive people distort their past to focus on the good parts.

Overall, then, there is clear evidence that nondepressed people distort reality in a self-serving direction and depressed people tend to see reality accurately. How does this evidence, which is about depression, tie into optimism and pessimism? Statistically, most depressed people score in the pessimistic range of explanatory style, and most nondepressed people score optimistically. This means that, on average, optimistic people will distort reality and pessimists, as Ambrose Bierce defined them, will “see the world aright.” The pessimist seems to be at the mercy of reality, whereas the optimist has a massive defense against reality that maintains good cheer in the face of a relentlessly indifferent universe.

This difference when assesing reality casts a light on the role of pessimism in modern society. The author claim that positions like CPAs, financial roles, safety-related positions, not only benefit but rely on the reality accuracy of pessimists so that their roles can be performed correctly. As such, mild pessimism are able to leverage their “pessimistic accuracy” while avoiding the constant heavy depression and sense of helplessness that heavily pessimist people suffer.

The downside of pessimism, as already discused, are:

  • it promotes depression
  • it produces lack of initiative and promotes inertia, specially when faced with challenges
  • bad mood (low self-steem, anxiety, sadness, worry)
  • high rate of desistance. they give up before they can achieve success, and as such teach themselves that success is unatainable
  • worst health condition
  • tendency to enter a loop: they expect bad things to happen and when they do they feel worse. setbacks become disasters, disasters become catastrophes

Human’s circadian cycle and basic rest–activity cycle ensures that eveyone experiments some degree of depression daily, and hormone cycles cause the same variation on a monthly basis for women. People tend to be mildly depressed at four in the morning and afternoon, and feel most energized in late morning and early evening. There is a cycle of optimism and pessimism that is common through the days, and both have a purpose. During highs, great plans are conceived, reality is distorted in order to make them seem achievable, new ideas florish. During lows, we are pulled back to reality, we have a better assessment of risks, we might distinguish shiny ideas from what really matters.

Depression and explanatory styles for kids

The CASQ is the attributional style questionnaire focused on children. The authors has conducted experiments to research the causes and effects of explanatory style in children. Some of the results from these experiments are:

  • up to puberty, girls are more optimistic than boys (as opposed to their twice higher depression rate later in life)
  • despite gender, children perform very high in terms of optimism until puberty
  • children have a lopsided explanatory style: bad events are temporary events with limited effects, they go away quickly and they are caused by someone else/bad luck/nature. Meanwhile, good event have lasting effects and duration, they help and contribute in all areas of their lives, and their cause is the child’s own actions, or at least that’s how they explain them to themselves.
  • there is high rate of depression among children, comparable to adults. but their depression don’t progress to hopeless and severe cases, and children suicide is rare {although children suicide has been rising it is still a very low anual rate}

The author argues that children have a natural immunity against hopelessness intended to make them more willing to survive until puberty, when they are then able to start doing their biological duty of growing their species. {has anything similar ever been researched in animals??}. This is similar to how prepubescent children tend to have good health conditions.

Where the explanatory style comes from for children?

There are three main theories regarding the origin of a child’s explanatory style:

  1. Mother influence: the theory is that children absorb their main caretaker (usually the mother) explanatory style. This is done either thought direct explanations (the famous question children ask “why?”) or by observing their mother behavior either talking to them, when talking to herself, and when talking to other adults. Both son and daughthers have a similar explanatory style to their mother, and the father’s explanatory style have low influence on them. The lack of influence of the father’s style helps to rule out a strong genetic influence.
  2. Adult criticism: adult figures that have influence and authority over children affect their explanatory style through criticism, such as teachers, parents, and caretakers. Children absorb the criticism received from these adults and use them to explain the world to themselves. The author says that due to behavior difference between boys and girls, boy tend to receive criticism in classroom based on temporary and specific causes. They fail a test because they were not paying attention or were scremming and running around. Meanwhile, girls tend to receive permanent and pervasive criticism: teachers say they are not good in the subject, or they are lazy. This has been demonstrated in experiments: when facing an unsolvable test in an experiment, boys use explanations like “I was not paying attention” or “I did not care about this test”, while girls use explanations like “I am not good at this type of test” or “I am not intelligent enough”.
  3. Life crisis: Life crisis and their effects influence how children develop their explanatory style. Going through major crisis like economic crises and recovering from that contributes for an optimistic style. Meanwhile, people from families who went through these crisis and never recovered financially tend to have a pessimist style. Other examples of life crisis with similar effects include abuse and loses (death of a close one). People who has lost their mother early in life also present a higher rate of pessimist explanatory style.

CAVE: Content analysis of verbatim explanations

This is a technique developed to assess one’s explanatory style without using the “official” questionnaires. Instead, one’s public discourses or verbatim interviews can be assesed and rated as they were questionnaire answers. {TODO: what about training a machine learning model to assess that?}

Assesing depression in children

There is a test specilized for assesing depression in kids called “Center for Epidemiological Studies-Depression Child (CES-DC) test”. Depressed children has terrible performance in school. Research has showed that pessimism is a predictor for depression in young kinds. Also, depressed kids who were pessimist tended to stay depressed while depressed kids who were optimists tend to get better.


Other than the explanatory style, bad life events are also predictors or causes for depression in children, including: someone close from the family dies, someone close goes away (eg. a brother leaving home to live in another place), a pet dies, the child moves to a new city/school, parents have constant fights, and parent’s divorce.

Divorce has profound implications on children: they are much more depressed even after a long time after the divorce, and on average they suffer from depression symptoms like sadness, bad mood, physical pain and health issues, lower self-esteem.

Weirdly enough, research has also demonstrated that somehow children of divorce suffers from more bad events in life. Some of them are understandable since they might be related to the cause of the divorce, or they might be consequences of divorce: parents are more likely to be hospitalized, the kid is more likely to fail school, disruptive changes like new strange people moving into the house, parents losing their jobs or having constant fights even after the divorce. Some other events were also more likely for divorce kids although there is no clear explanation as to why:

we were astonished by the last category of bad events that children of divorce suffer more of. We still don’t know what to make of these remarkable facts, but we think you should know about them:

  • The children of divorce see a sibling hospitalized three and a half times more often than children of intact families do.
  • The child’s own chance of being hospitalized is three and a half times greater.
  • The chance that a friend of the child will die is twice as great.
  • The chance that a grandparent will die is also twice as great. Some of these events may be causes or consequences of divorce. But, in addition, families that divorce seem to be cursed by more kinds of misfortune that seem to have nothing to do with the divorce itself, either as cause or as consequence. We cannot imagine how the death of a good friend of the child’s or a grandparent dying could be a consequence of divorce or how it could be a contributing cause. Yet the statistics are there.

{What other weird and seemingly unrelated statistics exist? In a way this made me remember about this website Spurious correlations which presents ridiculous correlations like how suicides by hanging correlates linearly with US spending on science, or things like that. In this case, however, it is not two unrelated variables that happen to share a similar function representation in a graph, but an actual statistics demonstrating that group A (divorce kids) are more likely to X,Y,Z then group B (non-divorce kids), and although this can still be only a correlation, it is a very peculiar one. The author even hints, partly joking partly serious, that these families might just be cursed, so the reason they were more likely to have a friend dying is not caused by their parents having divorced, but the fact they were cursed somehow is what caused both their parent divorce and their friends death. Can this data be taken seriously? Has this been replicated in other independent studies?

Can the increase in depression rate be explained at least partly by the increase in divorce rates? TODO: plot divorce rates and depression ratesm maybe by country/age/religion/socioeconomic status}

Parents fighting is nearly as bad as divorce for children outcomes. The author talks about the importance of avoiding fights for the wellbeing of children. He also talks about having productive fights: it is important to be polite and refrain from violence, and having clear resolutions. Research has demonstrated that children are less disturbed by fights when they have a clear resolution.

Girls and boys depression rates

Although adult women suffer twice more depression than man, young boys have higher depression rate and pessimism explanatory style than women. Their difference are in two symptoms: boys are more likely to display behavioral disturbance and anhedonia (defcit in motivation, anticipatory pleasure, consummatory pleasury, and reinforcement learning). This difference remains until puberty.

{TODO: How depression rate in children compare across variables (culture, socioeconomic status) and how it compares to adult rates?}