In This Article Optimism and Pessimism

  • Introduction
  • Reference Works
  • Popular Books
  • Defensive Pessimism
  • Development of and Influences on Optimism/Pessimism

Psychology Optimism and Pessimism
Julie K. Norem
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 May 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 19 March 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0108


In psychology, the most commonly used optimism/pessimism construct is dispositional optimism, which is the general tendency to expect positive outcomes, as opposed to dispositional pessimism, which is the general tendency to expect negative outcomes. Dispositional optimism/pessimism refer to broad, stable individual differences that are influenced by interactions between environment and genetics. Early interest in dispositional optimism/pessimism arose from its role in self-regulation models, because our expectations drive our responses during goal pursuit, especially when we encounter obstacles. Dispositional optimism is associated with a wide variety of positive outcomes, including better mental and physical health, motivation, performance, and personal relationships. Dispositional optimists typically show more persistence and approach-focused ways of coping with short- and long-term stressors. There are several other psychological concepts also labeled optimism and pessimism. There is a large research literature on unrealistic optimism, which is sometimes referred to as “comparative” optimism, because it is defined as being more optimistic about one’s own future outcomes than about others’ future outcomes. Unrealistic optimism is positively related to dispositional optimism but often shows different relationships to outcomes. There is also research on defensive pessimism, strategic optimism, hopeless pessimism, and situated (or situation-specific) optimism, as well as related concepts such as hope and illusion of control. Ongoing research investigates the relations among different kinds of optimism/pessimism, the potential independence of optimism and pessimism, and the specific processes by which they influence and are influenced by other constructs. Explanatory or attributional styles, which refer to characteristic ways that people explain events, are often described as optimistic or pessimistic (or referred to as optimism or pessimism). Those with an optimistic style explain negative events in terms of external, variable, and specific causes, while those with a pessimistic style use explanations that focus on internal, stable, and global causes. Dispositional and attributional optimism/pessimism are not strongly correlated, and attributional optimism/pessimism focus on explanations of past events rather than expectations about the future. There is an extensive research literature on attributional optimism, but the multidimensional nature of attributional styles and their weak relationship to other kinds of optimism/pessimism make extensive integration of that work with other optimism research beyond the scope of this article. Thus, there will be some discussion of the construct and its measurement but only a few references to specific research results.

Reference Works

Psychologists have defined a variety of different kinds of optimism and pessimism, and few reference sources treat all of them. Chang 2001 provides the most comprehensive collection of work on optimism/pessimism constructs. This volume includes chapters by virtually every major researcher in the area, as well as informative overview and summary chapters and chapters on the philosophical roots of modern views. Carver and Scheier 2009 is a concise review of research on dispositional optimism as an individual difference variable, written by those responsible for development of the most frequently used measure of optimism and much of the most influential research on that construct. Peterson 2000 provides some historical context and cautionary notes for contemporary optimism researchers. Chang, et al. 2009 offers a review that focuses on continuing issues and controversies in optimism and pessimism research. This article is intended for an educated audience but one without specific background in optimism research. The same is true of Weinstein 1989, which presents a short, pithy summary of unrealistic optimism research. Norem 2007 is a very short introduction to defensive pessimism written for a general audience.

  • Carver, Charles S., and Michael F. Scheier. 2009. Optimism. In Handbook of individual differences in social behavior. Edited by Mark R. Leary and Rick H. Hoyle, 330–342. New York: Guilford.

    E-mail Citation »

    This is a very accessible chapter that offers an introduction suitable for advanced undergraduates and graduate students. Carver and Scheier are the pre-eminent researchers of dispositional optimism, and they review measurement issues and research on the relationship between optimism and coping, mental and physical health, motivation, and relationships.

  • Chang, Edward C., ed. 2001. Optimism and pessimism: Implications for theory, research, and practice. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

    DOI: 10.1037/10385-000E-mail Citation »

    This volume was published shortly after a surge in optimism research in the late 1990’s, and it provides a thorough overview of optimism/pessimism constructs, theory, and research. The chapters are accessible to graduate students and researchers new to the area. This volume works well as a text for seminars.

  • Chang, Edward C., Rita Chang, and Lawrence J. Sanna. 2009. Optimism, pessimism, and motivation: Relations to adjustment. Social and Personality Psychology Compass 3:494–506.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1751-9004.2009.00190.xE-mail Citation »

    This journal publishes expert reviews designed to introduce research questions to a more general, professional audience. This article focuses on the processes by which different kinds of optimism/pessimism relate to motivation and lead to specific adjustment-related outcomes. Special attention is given to cultural context, definitional issues, and ongoing controversies. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Norem, Julie K. 2007. Defensive pessimism. In Encyclopedia of social psychology. Edited by Roy F. Baumeister and Kathleen D. Vohs. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

    E-mail Citation »

    This is a very brief introduction to the construct of defensive pessimism that includes discussion of how it relates to other types of optimism and pessimism. Written to be accessible for a general audience, it provides an easy starting point for undergraduates. Online access with a subscription is available through SAGE.

  • Peterson, Christopher. 2000. The future of optimism. American Psychologist 55:44–55.

    DOI: 10.1037/0003-066X.55.1.44E-mail Citation »

    Peterson distinguishes between optimism as an illusion versus a delusion, relating the distinction to previous authors such as Freud. He further describes “big” and “little” optimism, while cautioning researchers against assuming the same processes are involved in both. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Weinstein, Neil D. 1989. Optimistic biases about personal risks. Science 246:1232–1233.

    DOI: 10.1126/science.2686031E-mail Citation »

    A concise discussion of when unrealistic optimism is likely to be maladaptive, this article is written for educated general audiences and serves as a useful introduction to optimism in the context of risk-taking. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

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