“It is our attitude at the beginning of a difficult task which, more than anything else, will affect its successful outcome.” The sentiment articulated here by psychology pioneer William James is currently in vogue, if its preponderance in self-help books, motivational posters, and memes is anything to go by. But are we pinning too much on positive thinking?
A research team led by Elizabeth Tenney asked participants to guess how much a given task is affected by optimism, then compared this to how people actually fared when they were feeling more or less optimistic. So in one instance, “task completers” attempted a maths task, having been given false feedback that told them, based on their training performance, they were likely to do well or poorly, thus influencing their optimism. “Predictor” participants then guessed how the completers would perform, knowing that these people didn’t differ in calibre, only in the artificial feedback they’d received. Predictor participants expected the optimistic completers to do significantly better than those feeling pessimistic, but the reality is they didn’t.
Another experiment used a “Where’s Waldo?” task where task completers could study each complex image for as long as they wanted as they sought to pick out the figure hidden within. We might expect optimism to deliver results through sheer tenacity, and indeed the optimistic task completers did persist for about 20 per cent longer on the task. But this translated into a scant 5 per cent (statistically non-significant) improvement, not the hefty 33 per cent improvement expected by the predictors. Once again, people were shown to expect optimism to produce results in situations where the reality was otherwise.
A final experiment demonstrated that even when attention isn’t drawn artificially to people’s optimism, we still overrate its importance. Here, nine participants were each asked to estimate how 99 task completers had fared on a task, guided by character profiles of the completers, which included, among a host of other information, their level of optimism. Each profile characteristic gave participants more or less insight into the completers’ true performance: for instance, enjoyment of the test was a good, but not perfect, indicator that the person had performed well on the test. Participants were quite accurate in how much weight they gave to these cues – except for optimism, which they treated as a much more powerful factor than it truly was. This result suggests it wasn’t the way the earlier experiments were framed that led predictors to make too much of optimism; they are happy to do that all on their own.
This work doesn’t suggest that optimism is ineffective as a broad strategy for approaching life, or at helping us fulfil objectives at a broad scale. But it does suggest that we put more on the shoulders of optimism that it can bear. If you do badly at a test, rather than fretting that the cause was your negative mental attitude, it might be better to simply focus on your knowledge and approach.
Tenney, E., Logg, J., & Moore, D. (2015). (Too) optimistic about optimism: The belief that optimism improves performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 108 (3), 377-399 DOI: 10.1037/pspa0000018