Learned Optimism


Learned Optimism

by Martin E. P. Seligman

“Explanatory style” is the way we think about life’s events.  We can have either an optimistic or a pessimistic explanatory style.  Seligman’s research found that changing pessimism into optimism relieves depression.

A pessimistic explanatory style frames negative events in terms that are personal, permanent, and pervasive—I’m a failure, This always happens to me, This screws up my whole life.  Seligman offers the ABCDE technique to reframe explanatory style. The letters stand for adversity, belief, consequences, dispute (your negative beliefs), and energize.

Seligman applied his research at Met Life in the 1980s. The company had an enormous failure rate among newly hired sale agents. Half quit within the first year and 80% quit within four years.  This was costing the company $75-million a year in hiring costs.  Seligman administered a test to 100 very productive agents and 100 unproductive agents. He found that the most optimistic 10% sold 88% more than the most pessimistic 10%.  Apparently, optimism was a key success factor, enabling agents to endure the rejection incurred when cold calling.

With this insight, Met Life adjusted its hiring practices. They used Seligman’s questionnaire in addition to the standard industry “career profile” test. They rejected the most pessimistic 25% of applicants who passed the industry test, but they hired applicants who scored in the top half of the optimism questionnaire, even if they failed the career profile by a small margin. This approach resulted in a more productive sales force and a substantial increase in market share.

The Met Life CEO then asked if pessimism could be addressed within the senior executive ranks.  Seligman said it was possible, but not necessarily desirable.  “In many arenas of life, optimism is unwarranted… Imagine a company that consisted only of optimists, all of them fixed upon the exciting possibilities ahead. It would be a disaster. The company also needs its pessimists, the people who have an accurate knowledge of present realities. The treasurer, the CPAs…  the safety engineers—all these need an accurate sense of how much the company can afford, and of danger. Their role is to caution…  In some situations—the cockpit of an airliner, for example—what’s needed is not an upbeat view but a mercilessly realistic one.”

“We can learn to choose optimism for the most part, but also to heed pessimism when it is warranted.”

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Seligman, Martin E. P. Learned Optimism. New York: A.A. Knopf, 1991. Buy from Amazon.com


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