Three Types of Explanatory Style

This is the second post in a series of posts on Dr. Martin Seligman’s important book “Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life.” The preceding post stated that it is the explanation that individuals have for their failure to achieve a particular goal. This post explains the dimensions of explanatory style.

One dimension of explanatory style is permanence. People who give up easily believe the causes of bad events that happen to them are permanent: Bad events will happen, and will always be there to affect their lives. People who resist helplessness believe the causes of bad events are temporary.

Here are some comparisons of pessimistic and optimistic explanations:

People who give up easily believe the causes of bad events that happen to them are permanent.

PERMANENT (Pessimistic): TEMPORARY (Optimistic)

“I’m all washed up” “I’m exhausted.”
“Diets never work.” “Diets don’t work when you eat out.”
“You always nag.” “You nag when I don’t clean up my room.”
“The boss is a bastard.” “The boss is in a bad mood.”
“You never talk to me.” “You haven’t talked to me lately.”

The optimistic style of explaining good events is just the opposite of the optimistic style of explaining bad events. People who believe good events have permanents causes are more optimistic than people who believe they have temporary causes.

TEMPORARY (Pessmistic) PERMANENT (Optimistic)
“It’s my lucky day.” I’m always lucky
“I try hard.” I’m talented
“My rival got tired.” My rival is no good.

This permanence dimension determines how long a person gives up for. Permanent explanations for bad events produce long-lasting helplessness and temporary explanations produce resilience.

Permanence is about time. Pervasiveness is about space. People who make universal explanations for their failures give up on everything when a failure strikes in one area. People who make specific explanations may become helpless in that one part of their lives yet march bravely on in the others.

UNIVERSAL (Pessimistic) SPECIFIC (Optimistic)
“All teachers are unfair.” “Professor Seligman is unfair.”
“I’m repulsive.” “I’m repulsive to him.”
“Books are useless.” “This book is useless.”

The optimistic explanatory style for good events is opposite that for bad events. The optimist believes that bad events have specific causes, while good events will enhance everything he does; the pessimist believes the bad events have universal causes and that good events are cause by specific factors.

SPECIFIC (Pessimistic) UNIVERSAL (Optimistic)
“I’m smart at math.” “I’m smart.”
“My broker knows oil stocks” “My broker knows Wall Street.”
“ I was charming to her.” “I was charming.”

Whether or not we have hope depends on two dimensions of our explanatory style: pervasiveness and permanence. Finding temporary and specific causes for misfortune is the art of hope: Temporary causes limit helplessness in time, and specific causes limit helplessness to the original situation. On the other hand, permanent causes produce helplessness far into the future, and universal causes spread helplessness through all our endeavors. Finding permanent and universal causes for misfortune is the practice of despair.

“I’m stupid.” “I’m hung over.”
“Men are tyrants.” “My husband was in a bad mood.”
“It’s five in ten this lump is cancer.” “It’s five in ten this lump is nothing.”

According to Seligman, the final aspect of explanatory style is personalization. When bad things happen, we can blame ourselves (internalize) or we can blame other people or circumstances (externalize). People who blame themselves when they fail have low self-esteem as a consequence. They think they are worthless, talentless, and unlovable. People who blame external events do not lose self-esteem when bad events strike. Not surprisingly, they like themselves better than people who blame themselves do.

Low self-esteem usually comes from an internal style for bad events.

INTERNAL (Low self-esteem) EXTERNAL (High self-esteem)

“I’m stupid.” “You’re stupid.”
“I have no talent at poker.” “I have no luck at poker.”
“I’m insecure.’ “I grew up in poverty.”

The optimistic style for explaining good events is the opposite of that used for bad events: It’s internal rather than external. Seligman writes that people who believe they cause good things tend to like themselves better than people who believe good things come from other people or circumstances.

EXTERNAL (Pessimistic) INTERNAL (Optimistic)

“A stroke of luck…” “I can take advantage of luck.”
“My teammates’ skill… “My skill…”

Seligman notes that although there are clear benefits to learning optimism—there are also dangers. “Temporary? Local? That’s fine. I want my depressions to be short and limited. I want to bounce back quickly. But external? Is it right that I should blame others for my failures.?”

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