In the last couple of posts we’ve looked at how Martin Seligman and his colleagues developed a theory of optimism out of their research into learned helplessness and depression. Our Explanatory Styles/Attributional Styles determine how pessimistic or optimistic we are.
In this video, you’ll learn how to assess whether your own Explanatory/Attributional Styles are optimistic or pessimistic with examples from the Attributional Style Questionnaire (link to PDF article; reference below). And then learn how to increase you levels of optimism, making it less likely you become depressed.
Increase Optimism and Decrease Depression With CBT
This transcription was auto-generated by YouTube. I’ve only added minimal editing, so I apologize for any errors, run-on sentences, etc.
Are you an optimist or a pessimist? Well what does that even mean? In psychology there are a few different ways to measure optimism. One of them, conceived by martin seligman and his colleagues, is in terms of our explanatory or attributional styles, which refers to how do we explain, or to what do we attribute, the causes of negative and positive events in our lives.
In this video we’re going to get a sense of our own levels of explanatory or attributional style optimism. And then we’re going to learn what we can do to make ourselves more optimistic, and as a result improve our sense of well-being and self-esteem, and make ourselves less susceptible to things like depression.
So to start I’m going to ask you to imagine yourself in one of the following negative situations: you’ve been looking for a job unsuccessfully for some time; you can’t get all the work done that others expect of you; you meet up with a friend who doesn’t seem very happy to see you; you go out on a date and it goes badly. So once you have one of these in mind, picture yourself in that situation as vividly as possible, and pause the video if you need some time, and if you’re going to answer all of the questions you’ll probably need to pause the video throughout the first part or you can just follow along.
And then when you’re ready, write down if you can or just make a mental note of, what you think the main cause of that situation is?
And then ask yourself. Is that cause due to something about me or something about other people or external circumstances?
And in the future if you find yourself in the same or a similar situation will this cause be present again?
And finally, is the cause something that just influences this situation or does it influence other areas of your life as well?
And then when you’re ready we’re going to do it again but with examples of positive situations. So imagine that you apply for a position that you want really badly and you get it. Or you get a raise or promotion. Or you meet a friend and they seem really happy to see you. Or you do a project at work or school that’s highly praised.
So once you pick a situation picture yourself in that situation as vividly as possible?
And then write down or make a mental note of what you think the main cause of that situation is.
And then ask yourself is that cause due to something about me or something about other people or external circumstances?
And in the future if you find yourself in the same or a similar situation will this cause be present again?
And finally is this cause something that just influences this situation or does it apply in other areas of your life as well?
So what’s the point of these questions? They’re taken from something called the attributional style questionnaire, which was developed by seligman and his colleagues to measure our levels of explanatory or attributional style optimism. And it measures what’s known as the three p’s: personalization, permanence, and pervasiveness.
So in terms of personalization, pessimists attribute negative situations to internal causes—it’s my fault; and see these causes as permanent—this cause will always be here; and as pervasive—this cause affects all areas of my life.
And pessimists attribute positive situations to external causes—it’s not due to anything I did; temporary causes—this cause won’t be present next time; and specific causes that only apply in this one area or one situation and nowhere else in my life.
Whereas optimists attribute good events to internal causes—that happened because of something I did; and see these causes as permanent and pervasive—this cause will always be here, and it affects many areas of my life.
And optimists attribute negative events to external causes—it’s not my fault; and see these causes as temporary and specific to this one bad thing or one area of my life—this cause won’t always be here, and it doesn’t affect other areas of my life.
So in the questions we just did, in the negative situations, the higher your scores on each of the questions the more pessimistic your view of that situation was, and the lower your scores the more optimistic you were. And then for the positive situations, the lower your scores the more pessimistic your view of the situation was, and the higher your scores the more optimistic you were.
So you can go back and look at the other situations and answer the same questions for those if you like. And there’s a quiz in seligman’s book learned optimism that’ll give you a score in each of the three p’s. There’s also a free quiz you can do online that’ll give you a score in terms of permanence and pervasiveness and that I’ll link to in the description. And I have another video that goes into a lot more detail about explanatory and attributional styles. And now in the remainder of this video we’re going to look at what we can do to make our explanatory or attributional styles more optimistic.
now in his book learned optimism seligman says the way we can move ourselves from pessimism towards optimism is through cognitive behavioral therapy, which makes sense, because our explanatory or attributional styles reflect how we think about certain situations. And a big part of cbt is looking at our thoughts evaluating how accurate they are and then seeing if there are any other ways we can think about situations that are more accurate, and if so modifying our thoughts to make them better reflect reality. So let’s look at how we can do this for each of the three p’s.
So first personalization. So going back to the example situations, for instance if we thought the cause of not being able to complete all of the work that was expected of us was internal—something like we’re not good enough at our jobs or we’re too slow or we’re lazy or we’re not smart enough—and answered that the cause of this negative situation was totally due to me, we could be falling into a type of cognitive distortion known as personalization, which involves blaming ourselves and holding ourselves personally responsible for a negative outcome in a situation that’s not entirely under our control. And so we can ask ourselves questions like, is there any other way of looking at this situation in which I’m not completely to blame? Are there any contributions by other people or external circumstances that I’m overlooking that also helped lead to this outcome?
Maybe our supervisor was being unreasonable asking us to do so much work. Or maybe it wasn’t so much the amount of work but that a deadline got moved up and it would have been almost impossible to complete all of the work on time. Or maybe a co-worker didn’t do their fair share. We’re not trying to absolve ourselves of any responsibility for the outcome, not trying to shift our assessments from it was completely due to me to it was completely due to other people or external circumstances, but just trying to see if we can move the needle a little bit so that we don’t see this negative outcome as entirely due to something about us.
And sometimes it can help to use a responsibility pie where we write down all of the factors that may have contributed to a situation, and then make a pie chart assigning a share of responsibility to each of these factors, to help illustrate how we’re not fully responsible for the way things turned out. And I have a whole video about using a responsibility pie to counter personalization that I’ll link to in the description.
Now regarding positive situations, if we have a pessimistic outlook we attribute the cause of these positive situations to external things rather than giving ourselves any credit. So we get offered a position we applied for and think, I didn’t get the job because of my own merits, it was due to external factors beyond my control. There must not have been very many applicants. Or they probably needed to hire someone right away. Or the person they really wanted probably got a better offer somewhere else and they were stuck with me.
But is there another way of looking at this in which I give myself at least some of the credit?
Well sure, we don’t really know about the other factors, whether someone else was their first choice or it wasn’t a very competitive process, but we do know that regardless of whatever the external circumstances, were we at least did something to convince them we were qualified. And we did well enough on our interviews to get offered the job. And so we no longer see the cause as entirely due to other people or external factors. And as a result we’ve given ourselves a more optimistic outlook about this situation.
Now let’s look at permanence. Permanence is all about always and never. If we think, I can’t find a job because I’m terrible at interviews, or my friend wasn’t excited to see me because I’m so boring, if we think this cause is permanent and will always be present—I always do badly on job interviews,
I’m always boring, I never have anything interesting to talk about—then that’s a pessimistic outlook. And the antidote for this type of pessimism is to try to shift from thinking in terms of always and never, to things like sometimes or recently or lately or this time. Maybe I just had a bad day. Maybe I was really nervous about the interview because I didn’t sleep well the night before, or because I’ve been really stressed lately.
Or sometimes I’m not really that social when I’m feeling really tired or a little depressed. But if we look for exceptions and counter examples we’ll often find them. I haven’t always done poorly on job interviews. I’ve done well enough to be hired for jobs before. I’m not always so quiet. Sometimes I can be outgoing, it depends who I’m with and how I’m feeling, it’s not like I never have anything to say. So anything we can point to that suggests that the cause of this negative event is not always present helps us be less pessimistic.
And now looking at permanence and positive outcomes. If we apply for something successfully and attribute it to, I just got lucky, well that’s a pessimistic outlook, because luck isn’t something we can count on as permanent.
So if we want to be more optimistic we can look for causes that have more permanence. Maybe I got a little lucky, but I also worked really hard on my application, and I prepared really well. And working hard and preparing well are things that I can always or almost always do, so there’s a permanent aspect to the cause, as well as maybe some luck. So it’s likely that at least some of this cause will be present in the future.
And finally pervasiveness. If I had a bad date or my friend didn’t seem happy to see me. If I attribute this to me being boring. Or because I don’t talk much and I’m too quiet; and I think that this cause influences not just this date or meeting with my friend but it’s pervasive—everyone I know and everyone I meet thinks I’m boring, or I’m always too quiet in every social situation—if we want to be more optimistic we need to start looking for some exceptions. So we can ask ourselves if we can recall a situation in which this cause wasn’t present?
So if I’ve ever had a date or friendship where I connected with someone, or if I get along with the people I work with, or at least some of the people I work with, then this cause—being boring or being too quiet—doesn’t actually influence all situations in my life. And so maybe our pervasiveness scores move to something like, this cause influences some situations in my life, which is less pessimistic and a more optimistic outlook.
And similarly if we attribute a good event to a cause that isn’t pervasive—I get along with this friend because I feel comfortable with them so I’m a little more talkative—but this cause isn’t pervasive—I don’t feel comfortable around other people so with them I’m always too quiet—hen we need to look for examples in which we did feel comfortable enough around someone else that we were a little more outgoing. And so even if this cause doesn’t influence all situations in my life it does influence more than just this one situation with this one friend, and so it has some pervasiveness which means we’re seeing this situation from a more optimistic perspective.
So if we tend to be pessimistic, cbt can be a great way to reconsider the causes that we attribute to various situations in our lives, allowing us to see things in a different light and from different perspectives, and help us find explanations that are more optimistic, and as a result improve our self-esteem and make us less susceptible to things like depression.
There is an Explanatory Style/Attributional Style Quiz in Learned Optimism, by Martin Seligman, and an online Explanatory Style/Attributional Style Quiz on his website. You’ll need to register, but it’s free.
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. https://doi.org/10.1037/0021-843X.87.1.49
Peterson, Christopher & Semmel, Amy & Baeyer, Carl & Abramson, Lyn & Metalsky, Gerald & Seligman, Martin. (1982). The Attributional Style Questionnaire. Cognitive Therapy and Research. 6. 287-299. 10.1007/BF01173577.
Seligman, M. E. P. (1991). Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. New York: Knopf. ISBN 978-0-671-01911-2.