Posts Tagged ‘Learned optimism’

Optimism, pessimism and delusion

September 18, 2011

The believer is happy.
The doubter is wise.
    ==Spanish proverb

Most human beings are more optimistic than the facts warrant.  Many studies show that people regard themselves as more important, more well-regarded, more talented and more virtuous than their friends and loved ones see them.  We think we are like the children in Lake Wobegon, who are all above average.

Martin Seligman, the author of Learned Optimism (1990, 1997) and Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Achieve Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment (2002), which I read a couple of years ago, thinks this is a good thing, not a bad thing.  Morbidly depressed people on average have a more accurate idea of their life situation than optimists, but they don’t do as well.  Seligman claims it is better to be optimistic and slightly unrealistic than to be pessimistic and clear-sighted.

Martin Seligman is the psychologist who developed the concept of “learned helplessness.”  His experiments showed that dogs or undergraduates who are confronted with problems for which there is no possible solution tend not only to give up, but to fail to respond to future problems.  Through further study, he concluded that the reverse is true.  Success in solving problems gives a sense of mastery that carries over in responding to future problems.

He found that optimism is a major factor in the success of insurance salesmen, West Point plebes, and athletes.  Optimists on average are more successful and pessimists less successful than their level of talent and commitment would lead you to expect, he wrote; optimists on average are less subject to disease, if only because they are more likely to maintain good health habits and follow doctors’ orders.

Pessimists on average are more subject to depression; optimists are more resilient in the fact of adversity.  I would have expected optimists to be more likely to collapse when their illusions are punctured, but Seligman said this is not the case. This is not to say that pessimists can’t be healthy or successful in life, just that the odds favor optimists.

Seligman found that optimism and pessimism come from “explanatory strategies.” Pessimists regard bad things as pervasive, permanent and personal (“this happens with everything, it happens all the time and it’s all my fault”) and good things as particular, temporary and external. Optimists are the reverse.

I was brought up to believe it better to take responsibility for failures and to refrain from boasting of successes.   If Seligman is right, the reverse is true.

People tend to have an inborn “set point” for optimism and pessimism, Seligman wrote; in his experiments, there were some people who never gave up no matter how many times they failed, and others who were defeated by the least little thing.  But it is possible to consciously change your set point, he said.

Seligman told how, while gardening, he snapped at his five-year-old daughter for some minor thing.   The daughter asked him if he had noticed that she hadn’t done so much whining lately.  Seligman acknowledged that she had. She told him that if she could stop whining, he could stop being a grouch.   The point is that it is possible to consciously change your patterns of behavior, whether you’re a young child or middle-aged adult.   Seligman said his own “set point” is mild pessimism (so is mine, I think).   He said he has used his techniques to teach himself and his children optimism.

But since pessimists tend to have a more accurate perception of reality than do optimists, the desired state is not be locked into either optimism or pessimism, but to control your mind so you can shift between optimism and mild pessimism as the situation warrants.

Barbara Ehrenreich wrote a chapter in her book Bright-Sided debunking Seligman.   His conclusions have no scientific foundation, she wrote; for every study that confirms his ideas, there are others rebutting them.  Seligman is doing well financially as a lecturer, consultant and workshop leader, but she said his claims go beyond his knowledge.  She said she confronted him with her objections in an interview, and he was such a difficult subject that she wondered if he was trying his “learned helplessness” theory on her.  I think there is truth in her objections, but I also think that, taken as a philosophy of life rather than a scientific theory, Seligman’s ideas have merit.


The learned helplessness of the Democrats

June 2, 2011

Martin Seligman is the psychologist who coined the phrase “learned helplessness.”  It is based on work he did with dogs as a young graduate student in 1964.  In the experiment, the dogs were trained to associate a musical tone with mild electric shock.  They would then be given a chance to learn they could escape the shock if they could jump over a small barrier, and then the psychologists would see if they responded the same way to the musical tone without the shock.  Seligman described the result in his book Learned Optimism:

Martin Seligman

These dogs … had just lain down whimpering.  They hadn’t even tried to get away from the shocks. … Accidentally, during some part of the experiment, the dogs must have been trained to be helpless.  That’s why they had given up. … During Pavlovian conditioning, they felt the shocks go on and off, regardless of whether they struggled or jumped or barked or did nothing at all.  They had concluded, or “learned,” that nothing they did mattered. So why try? ……

It would take the next ten years of my life to prove to the scientific community that what afflicted those dogs was helplessness, and that helplessness could be learned, and therefore unlearned.

Democratic liberal leaders manifest learned helplessness.  Since 1980, they have  become so accustomed to defeat that they think in terms not of how to win, but of what terms they can get from their opponents.

Most of us liberals think that a single-payer health insurance plan or, at the very least, a public option would be the best way to provide universal health care while controlling costs.  But it is unpopular, so the Democratic liberal leaders settle for the Affordable Care Act, which hardly anyone understands or defends.

We are indignant that the abuse of cloture by Republicans means that a 60-vote Senate majority is needed for any significant action.  But President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid don’t even make an issue of it, so the majority of Americans are not informed that this is even a problem.

We favor the card-check system to enable unions to organize without intimidation, but there is opposition, so this is not even proposed.  The “cramdown” plan, to allow federal bankruptcy judges to deal with mortgage foreclosures, is not on the agenda.  Likewise any serious proposal to break up the “too big to fail” banks.  Likewise any serious proposal to keep Americans at work by maintaining essential public services and rebuilding deteriorating infrastructure.

No doubt some of these things are unpopular.  They always will be unpopular if Americans never hear any arguments in favor.

Republican “movement conservatives” are not like this.  They stick by their agenda, even when they pay a political price.  Each time they propose privatizing Social Security or voucherizing Medicare, they fall in the public opinion polls, but they also make a dent in the consensus, and increase the chances of getting their way the next time around.

Democratic leaders, in contrast, weaken their case every time they accept debate on Republican conservative terms.  President Obama has already lost when he accepts the premise that dealing with Medicare deficits projected for 20 years from now is more important than the current unemployment crisis.

Martin Seligman in his experiments found that there were some dogs who did not learn to be helpless.  They kept trying, no matter what.  Liberals need to learn the same dogged determination.