Depression, Optimism and Attributional or Explanatory Style

We all know what optimism means, but there are a few ways to conceptualize optimism in psychology. Martin Seligman defines pessimism and optimism in terms of our explanatory styles or attributional styles.

Learn the Three Ps—Permanence, Pervasiveness and Personalization—that determine whether we have pessimistic or optimistic explanatory style, and how pessimism leads to depression, while optimism leads to hope and resilience.

From Pessimism and Depression to Optimism and Resilience

This transcription was auto-generated by YouTube. I’ve only added minimal editing, so I apologize for any errors, run-on sentences, etc.

In a previous video we looked at how Martin Seligman’s research into learned helplessness led him to come up with a model of what’s called our explanatory styles, that describes why only some people developed to learn helplessness. Learned helplessness refers to when we become helpless in one area or domain of our lives, and this helplessness starts to carry over into other areas of our lives. And so we’ve learned to be helpless, and we act as if we’re helpless in these other areas even though we’re not actually helpless.

Now learned helplessness resembles depression. And so once we understand why some people develop learned helplessness and others never do, we can apply this knowledge to preventing and treating depression. And for Seligman it comes down to how pessimistic or optimistic our explanatory styles are. And so in this video we’re going to learn what explanatory style means, and we’re going to look at the differences between pessimistic explanatory styles, which are associated with depression, and optimistic explanatory styles which are associated with resiliency and happiness.

So first what is an explanatory style. Well it’s called the explanatory style because it refers to how we explain the causes of negative and positive events outcomes and experiences we have. It’s also known as the attributional style: in other words to what do we attribute the negative and positive things that occur in our lives. And our explanatory or attributional styles consist of three dimensions. Known as the three p’s: permanence, pervasiveness and personalization, as well as hope.

So permanence refers to whether we see the causes of events in our lives as permanent and stable, in other words they’re not likely to change, or temporary and unstable and likely to change. A pessimistic explanatory style regards the causes of negative events and setbacks as permanent and stable; and the causes of positive events or successes as temporary and unstable: something bad happens and that’s because it always happens and it’s going to keep happening; something good happens and that’s because we just got lucky this time and who knows what will happen next time.

Whereas an optimistic explanatory style regards the causes of negative events or setbacks as temporary and unstable, and the causes of positive events and successes as permanent or stable: something bad happens and it’s because we got unlucky this time, who knows what will happen next time; and something good happens and it’s because that always happens it’s what we expected, and it’s what we think will happen in the future.

So we don’t get a promotion at work and we think, i never get any recognition at work, i always get overlooked. So we see this negative event as representing something stable. It’s never different, it always happens, so that’s a pessimistic explanatory style: we’re attributing a negative event to a permanent and stable cause and that makes us feel helpless.

But if instead we think I’m so disappointed i didn’t get a promotion this time, then it’s not something we see as permanent. It happened this time, maybe another time it’ll be different. So that’s an optimistic explanatory style. We’re attributing this negative event to a temporary or unstable or one-time cause. We don’t see it as a permanent state and so we don’t feel helpless.

Now on the other hand let’s say something good happens. We text a friend to meet up for coffee and they say, sure, and we think I’m glad they weren’t too busy today. This would be a pessimistic explanatory style because we attribute this good event to a temporary cause: they weren’t busy today, but there’s no guarantee that things will continue to go this well. Maybe they’ll be too busy in the future to spend time with us.

But if we think, I’m glad we’re such good friends, then that’s an optimistic explanatory style because we attribute they’re agreeing to meet up with us for coffee to something stable: our good friendship. And so we believe things will continue to turn out well in the future because this good event has a stable cause.

Now pervasiveness has to do with whether we regard the causes of events as global and universal, they apply to everything, or as specific to this one event. A pessimist sees the causes of negative events as global and the causes of positive events as specific to that event or to that one area of life. Whereas an optimist sees the causes of negative events as specific to that event, and the causes of positive events as global.

So we make dinner and it tastes terrible and we think, i can’t do anything right, I’m so bad at everything, i mess everything up. We’ve generalized our inability to perform well in this one area of our lives to apply in all areas of our lives. We see ourselves as failures on a global scale.

But with an optimistic explanatory style we ruin dinner and we think, i wonder what happened, i must not have followed the recipe. So we see our failure as being specific to that one dinner. Or maybe we even think, I’m just not a good cook. So we’re acknowledging that we’re not that good in this one specific area of our lives, but we haven’t generalized it as a global trait that applies to all areas of our lives, so we don’t regard this failure as pervasive.

Now let’s say something good happens. We get a promotion. A pessimistic view is, it’s due to something specific that happened with this one project, not something general and pervasive. So we’re attributing our success to something that’s specific to this one instance. It doesn’t have a pervasive cause, so there’s no reason to think we’re going to have the same success in other situations.

A more optimistic explanatory style would be, i got a promotion because I’m a really hard worker, or because I’m really smart. So we attribute our success to global traits. And those are pervasive causes that apply globally beyond this one promotion and even apply to situations outside our jobs.

Which brings us to hope. For Seligman hope is the sum of our pervasiveness and permanence explanatory styles. The more we see bad events or failures as pervasive and global, and permanent and stable; the more hopeless we feel. Everything is terrible. It’s never going to get any better. I’m a complete failure and that’s never going to change.

But if we can see bad events or failures as specific and temporary, then we have hope for the future. That didn’t go so well, but other things are going okay, and i think it’ll be better next time, and i usually learn from my mistakes.

And finally we have personalization, which has to do with whether we internalize or externalize the causes of events. A pessimist internalizes bad events and setbacks—it’s my fault—and externalizes good events and success—it had nothing to do with me, they were just being nice; or i hardly did anything i just got lucky. Whereas an optimist externalizes bad events and setbacks—it’s not my fault— and internalizes good events and successes—that happened because i worked really hard, or because I’m such a nice person.

So for example, we’re doing wordle or crossword puzzle or sudoku and we’re not able to solve it. With a pessimistic explanatory style we internalize the cause of our failure and think, i can’t get this because I’m so stupid. But with an optimistic explanatory style we externalize the cause of our failure and think, that puzzle was unfair or it was too hard today what a stupid puzzle.

Or let’s say we have some success, and we get an A on a test, or we do really well on a job interview and get offered the job. With a pessimistic explanatory style, we externalize the cause of our success: these questions were so easy anyone would have done well. But with an optimistic explanatory style, we internalize the cause of our success: i got that grade or aced that interview because i prepared really well, and i stayed calm, and i answered everything as well as i could have.

So it’s easy to see how a pessimistic explanatory style resembles depression. If we think everything goes wrong in my life, and it’s all my fault, and things are never going to get any better, then that’s a pessimistic explanatory style across all three Ps. And it’s also how we often think when we’re depressed.

But if we can change our explanatory styles to make them more optimistic, in other words if we can learn to attribute negative experiences events and setbacks to causes that are: specific to that experience or event; and that are not our faults; and that are temporary, then this optimistic explanatory style makes us more resilient and less susceptible to things like depression.

And we’ll experience similar benefits if we can change our pessimistic explanatory styles about good events that attribute them to specific, external, and unstable or temporary causes; to more optimistic explanatory styles that attribute these good events to pervasive, internal, and permanent causes.

And if you’re interested in learning what your explanatory style, is there’s a quiz in Seligman’s book Learned Optimism that’ll give you your score in each of the three Ps plus hope. And there’s a free quiz on his website that I’ll link to in the description that’ll give you a permanence and pervasiveness score as well as hope. But it doesn’t include a score for personalization.

In my next video on optimism we’re going to learn how we can make our explanatory styles more optimistic, and as a result make ourselves more resilient and less susceptible to things like depression. So please subscribe so you don’t miss that video.

If you have any questions or comments, please leave them on the YouTube video page.

Abramson, L. Y., Seligman, M. E., & Teasdale, J. D. (1978). Learned helplessness in humans: Critique and reformulation. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 87(1), 49–74.

Seligman, M. E. P. (1991). Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. New York: Knopf. ISBN 978-0-671-01911-2.