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Does optimism lead to success? Friends of optimism argue that positive beliefs about ourselves and our future contribute to our fitness and mental health, and are correlated with good functioning, productivity, resilience, and pro-social behaviour. Sceptics, instead, claim that when we are optimistic we fail to react constructively to negative feedback, and put ourselves at risk because we underestimate threats. Thus, it is controversial whether optimistic beliefs are conducive to success, intended as the fulfilment of our goals in a given domain. According to the traditional view, optimistic beliefs lead to success when they do not involve any distortion of reality, and according to the trade-off view, they lead to success when they involve a distortion of reality, but a small one. Based on the literature about positive illusions in the perception of romantic partners and in the assessment of future health prospects, I suggest that optimistic beliefs lead to goal attainment when they support agency by contributing to the sense that we are competent and efficacious agents and that our goals are both desirable and attainable.
Optimism, Agency, and Success
Lisa Bortolotti
Accepted: 30 April 2018 /Published online: 13 May 2018
#The Author(s) 2018
Abstract Does optimism lead to success? Friends of optimism argue that positive beliefs
about ourselves and our future contribute to our fitness and mental health, and are correlated
with good functioning, productivity, resilience, and pro-social behaviour. Sceptics, instead,
claim that when we are optimistic we fail to react constructively to negative feedback, and put
ourselves at risk because we underestimate threats. Thus, it is controversial whether optimistic
beliefs are conducive to success, intended as the fulfilment of our goals in a given domain.
According to the traditional view, optimistic beliefs lead to success when they do not involve any
distortion of reality, and according to the trade-off view, they lead to success when they involve a
distortion of reality, but a small one. Based on the literature about positive illusions in the
perception of romantic partners and in the assessment of future health prospects, I suggest that
optimistic beliefs lead to goal attainment when they support agency by contributing to the sense
that we are competent and efficacious agents and that our goals are both desirable and attainable.
Keywords Optimism bias .Dispositional optimism .Agency.Success .Motivation .Positive
1 Optimism and Goal Fulfilment
Most of us have optimistic beliefs. For instance, I tend to believe that I am more productive
than the average academic and that I will not get cancer. Although the link between optimism
and success is widely endorsed in popular culture, it is controversial in the empirical literature,
where we find both examples of optimistic beliefs leading to success (e.g., Fox 2013)and
examples of optimistic beliefs leading to failure (e.g., Lavallo and Kahneman 2003;Lewine
and Sommers 2016).
Let me start with an example of optimistic beliefs linked to success where success is cashed
out in terms of overall social adjustment. People were found to adapt better to the loss of a
Ethic Theory Moral Prac (2018) 21:521535
*Lisa Bortolotti
Philosophy Department and Institute for Mental Health, University of Birmingham, Edgbaston B15
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spouse when they had unrealistically self-enhancing beliefs, that is, excessively positive beliefs
about themselves, their skills, and their talents (Yan and Bonanno 2015). Adjustment was
measured by structured interviews and ratings by family and friends where the personsmental
health and quality of social interactions were also taken into account.
Let me turn now to an example of optimistic beliefs that are not conducive to success,
where success is measured by academic performance and engagement.Intheshortterm,
students who had illusory beliefs about their academic ability experienced higher levels of
wellbeing than students without self-enhancing beliefs (Robins and Beer 2001).Butinthe
long term, they became progressively less engaged with their academic context, had decreas-
ing self-esteem, and experienced lower levels of wellbeing. In self-enhancers academic
performance was no better than in people who had more realistic expectations, and when
self-enhancers realised that they could not achieve the grades they expected, they started
considering grades less important (the so-called sour grapeseffect).
As the examples show, the psychological evidence suggests that there is no straight-forward
relationship between the optimistic content of our beliefs and goal attainment. However, it is
important to identify key features that make some optimistic beliefs but not others conducive
to success. Theoretically, the project contributes to a better understanding of the conditions for
successful agency. Practically, the project has significant applications for psychological inter-
ventions aimed at promoting those forms of optimism that are linked to goal attainment.
In this paper, I challenge the two dominant views about the relationship between optimism
and success: (1) optimistic beliefs lead to success when they involve no distortion of reality; (2)
optimistic beliefs lead to success when they do involve a distortion of reality, but not a major
one. Both views are problematic, because some optimistic beliefs that involve a substantial
departure from epistemic rationality and significantly idealise reality lead to success. I will
propose a third view, according to which the beliefs leading to success are those that impact on
our behaviour, sustaining our motivation to pursue our goals at critical times.
In sections 2and 3, I describe different ways in which optimism is measured and tested in
social psychology, and introduce two broad approaches to the relationship between optimism
and success, the traditional view and the trade-off view. In sections 4and 5, I consider the
effects of optimism in two domains where the role of optimistic beliefs has been studied
extensively: perceptions of our romantic partners and attitudes towards our future health
prospects. In section 6, I reflect on the cases previously discussed, show that they cannot be
easily accounted for by the traditional view or the trade-off view, and propose a third view of
the relationship between optimism and success. Independent of how realistic they are, the
beliefs linked to success sustain our motivation to pursue our goals notwithstanding the
inevitable setbacks and challenges we face.
2 Defining and Measuring Optimism
There are two main notions of optimism discussed in the psychological evidence, positive
illusions and dispositional optimism. Positive illusions are patterns of beliefs about self, world,
and future characterised by Bsystematic small distortions of reality that make things appear
better than they are^(Taylor 1989, page 228). There are three basic types of positive illusions.
First, we harbour the illusion of control when we believe that we can control independent,
external events (e.g., Langer and Roth 1975). Second, we are vulnerable to the illusion of
superiority when we believe that we are better than average in a variety of domains, including
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attractiveness, intelligence, and even moral character (e.g., Brown 2012; Wolpe et al. 2014).
Third, we are prone to the optimism bias when we have the tendency to predict that our future
will be largely positive and will yield progress, and that negative events will not be part of our
lives (Weinstein 1980; Sharot 2011).
Shelley Taylors positive illusions are characterised as tendencies to adopt false beliefs.For
instance, the optimism bias (also called unrealistic optimism)isdefinedasBan erroneous belief
that personal negative outcomes, assessed on some form of absolute likelihood scale, are less
likely to occur than is objectively warranted^(Shepperd et al. 2013,p.396,myemphasis).An
example of optimism bias would be if I underestimate the chances that I will be involved in a
car accident during my lifetime. There is also a form of comparative optimism bias which
occurs Bwhen a person incorrectly judges how his or her risk compares with that of other
people^or Bwhen people in a sample estimate that they are less likely on average to experience
a negative outcome or more likely on average to experience a positive outcome than are their
peers^(Shepperd et al. 2013, p. 398, my emphasis). One example would be if I claim that I am
much less likely than average to be involved in a car accident, even though I drive just as well
and just as often as the average driver.
Although the beliefs we considered are deemed to be erroneous or incorrect, and Taylor
characterises them as (small) distortions of reality, it is important to notice that the beliefs do not
need to be false. When we say that we are above average in a domain, we are sometimes right
about that; and some of the rosy predictions we make about our future will turn out to be accurate.
The beliefs we endorse are illusory not because they are false, but because they are the result of
biased reasoning. For instance, it has been shown that we dismiss new evidence for a negative
turn of events, but take on board new evidence for a positive turn of events (Sharot 2011;Sharot
and Garrett 2016). As the key epistemic cost is an asymmetrical regard for the relevant evidence
rather than inaccuracy as such, the form of optimism exemplified by positive illusions should be
labelled as unwarranted rather than unrealistic (see Jefferson et al. 2017 for a further discussion
of this point). That is why I depart from convention and prefer to call the beliefs studied in the
positive illusions literature optimistically biased beliefs rather than unrealistically optimistic
beliefs. Moreover, given the nature of the bias that affects our self-related beliefs, it is appropriate
to regard them as epistemically irrational, in the sense that they may not be well-grounded on
existing evidence, and they are generally resistant to new counter-evidence.
Not all forms of optimism are the result of biased reasoning. For instance, dispositional
optimism is a personality trait exhibited by different individuals to different degrees. It is a
generalized tendency to expect positive outcomes (Carver et al. 2010; see also Conversano
et al. 2010). Differently from the optimism bias, which is measured by comparing the
perceived chance of an event occurring with its objective chance of occurring, dispositional
optimism is measured by using the revised Life Orientation Test (Carver et al. 2010;Scheier
et al. 1994), which asks people to what extent they agree or disagree with statements such as
BIn uncertain times, I usually expect the best^or BI rarely count on good things happening to
me^. It is not clear what the correlation is between positive illusions and optimistic expecta-
tions, as the studies investigating such a relationship have delivered so far inconsistent and
inconclusive results (see Shepperd et al. 2013 for a brief discussion of this point).
Dispositional optimism is correlated with active coping or problem-focused coping in a
number of different studies (e.g., Scheier et al. 1986). This means that when we are high in
dispositional optimism we tend to respond positively and constructively to setbacks, without
denying obstacles or being defensive about negative feedback (Conversano et al. 2010;Nes
and Segerstrom 2006). As a result, when we are dispositionally optimistic, we have more
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satisfying and stable relationships and we enjoy better physical and mental health. In the
relationship domain, dispositional optimism enables couples to respond more constructively to
stressful situations and conflict (Murray and Holmes 1997; Srivastava et al. 2006). In the
health domain, dispositional optimism is protective with respect to anxiety and depression,
linked to better health outcomes and lower mortality, and conducive to more effective coping
in the presence of health threats (Conversano et al. 2010; McKenna et al. 1993). The positive
effects of dispositional optimism have been explained by two hypotheses. First, due to being
framed broadly, optimistic expectations allow for a reinterpretation of the impact of the
available evidence on our chances to attain our goals, enabling us to keep engaged in the face
of challenges. Second, due to having a positive content, general expectations are linked to a
more balanced emotional profile, reducing stress, supporting behavioural changes, and helping
us respond effectively to threats.
There seem to be two main differences between dispositional optimism and positive
illusions. First, whereas positive illusions can be switched on and offdepending on life
circumstances and mood, dispositional optimism is a fairly stable personality trait. Second,
whereas dispositional optimism has well-documented benefits across the board, positive
illusions can have positive or negative effects depending on their applications. Let me consider
both features in turn.
Recent studies have shown that we maintain our dispositional optimism in the face of quite
dramatic changes in life circumstances, including chronic illness (Fournier et al. 2002).
Instead, positive illusions can decrease after adversities, including illness, disability, abuse,
and trauma (Bloom 2003). Moreover, there is some evidence that positive illusions can be
sensitive to environmental factors: they are enhanced in people who experienced a warm
parenting style in their childhood (Peterson 2000; see also Moutsiana et al. 2013). There is also
evidence that positive illusions can be controlled, at least to some extent: when we are given
more information about the evaluation or the prediction to be made and we are made to feel
more accountable for our evaluation or prediction, then we are less vulnerable to causal
illusions and self-enhancing biases (e.g., Matute et al. 2015; Sedikides et al. 2002). So, it
seems that we are stuck with or without dispositional optimism, but our self-related beliefs can
be debiased to some extent. The question is whether it is a good idea to debias them.
Some have argued that positive illusions are the most promising case of adaptive misbeliefs
(McKay and Dennett 2009, page 507), that is, although they are epistemically problematic,
they are also biologically and psychologically adaptive, enhancing our chances of survival and
reproduction, and contributing to our wellbeing. Some of the benefits attributed to positive
illusions seem to go beyond a mere increase in fitness or wellbeing: positive illusions have
been correlated to mastery, motivation, productivity, resilience, and altruistic and caring
behaviour (Taylor 1989, page 203; Alicke and Sedikides 2009), suggesting that they are an
important factor in supporting mental health and moral conduct. Such considerations may give
us a reason to resist debiasing interventions.
However, as we saw, the recent literature has revealed that optimistic beliefs can have
harmful as well as beneficial consequences. For instance, optimistic predictions about our
future can increase self-confidence and become self-fulfilling in some circumstances, but in
other circumstances they lead us to ignore potential obstacles and take unnecessary risks. By
believing that the future will be rosy, we become complacent or turn out to be unprepared
when failure ensues (Shepperd et al. 2013). This is due to optimism fostering feelings of
invulnerability and leading to disappointment when reality does not match our predictions.
Such considerations may give us a reason to pursue debiasing strategies.
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3 The Traditional View and the Trade-Off View
In the empirical literature, there are two broad approaches to the question whether optimism is
good for us. What I am going to call the traditional view says that having true beliefs
contributes to psychological wellbeing, whereas having false beliefs leads to psychological
distress. This view is implicit in some accounts of mental distress where madnessis defined
or explained in terms of irrationality (Bortolotti 2013). Moreover, the view underlies some
theories about the causes of depression. For Aaron T. Beck, for instance, cognitive errors,
including negative automatic thinking, negative self-schemata, and errors in logic, precede
symptoms of depression such as low mood (Beck 1967). According to Martin E. Seligmans
learned helplessness theory, we become depressed when, as a result of life experiences, we
come to believe that we cannot escape negative events and that there is nothing we can do to
change our circumstances for the better (Seligman 1974). In BecksandSeligmans accounts,
depression is the result of thinking irrationally and adopting false beliefs.
The trade-off view emerges as an explicit challenge to the traditional view and argues that,
in at least some contexts, our psychological wellbeing requires having beliefs that distort
reality in a particular way (Taylor and Brown 1988). To be mentally healthy, we need to be
optimistic about our skills and talents, our capacity to control external events, and our future.
Having true beliefs, instead, can lead to distress. When we are affected by low mood, we tend
to have true beliefs about our skills and talents, our capacity to control external events, and our
future. This affects us negatively, as it is shown in the depressive realism literature where
people with depression are found more realistic in their self-related beliefs than people without
depression, due to the latter being vulnerable to Bself-enhancing distortions^(Lewinsohn et al.
What do the two approaches have to say about the link between optimism and success?
Although they might not have anything specific to say about success as such, they have
predictions to make about the relationship between optimism and psychological wellbeing,
which differently from hedonic wellbeing also includes adjustment or good functioning. The
traditional view predicts that positive illusions, intended as distortions of reality, are not
conducive to good functioning. This prediction cannot explain the robust data about the
adaptiveness of positive illusions. The trade-off view predicts that positive illusions are
conducive to good functioning because they offer the particular distortion of reality we need
to enjoy mental health. But how can we explain then that some forms of optimism are
harmful? The trade-off view maintains that optimism ceases to bring benefits when it is off-
the-mark (Armor and Taylor 1998,2003) because excessive optimism can prevent us from
anticipating set-backs and preparing for negative outcomes (Sweeny et al. 2006; Schacter and
Addis 2007). But this does not apply to positive illusions that involve only a small distortion of
The problem with both the traditional view and the trade-off view is that, as I previously
hinted, it is misleading to make reality distortion the central epistemic fault of positive illusions
and the key to their contribution to success. First, some positive illusions give rise to true
beliefs but all the beliefs that arise from positive illusions are adopted and retained in a biased
(epistemically irrational) way. So the central epistemic fault of positive illusions is their giving
rise to beliefs that are unwarranted. Second, for the traditional view only true and rational
beliefs are beneficial, and the trade-off view sorts good from bad optimistic beliefs based on
whether the distortion of reality they involve is small or large. But some of our optimistic
Optimism, Agency, and Success 525
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beliefs can be beneficial and conducive to goal attainment even if they significantly idealise
reality. We might need a third view.
4 Our Love Is Blind
All classic positive illusions are observed in the domain of romantic relationships. We are
subject to optimism bias when we underestimate our likelihood of getting a divorce even when
we are well-informed about the high divorce rates in the society in which we live (Baker and
Emery 1993; Fowers et al. 2001). Optimistically biased predictions about the future of
romantic relationships may be supported by other positive illusions, for instance, by the
superiority bias and the love-is-blind illusion (Murray et al. 1996a,b). The relationship
superiority bias occurs when we rate our relationship as better than most (Buunk and van
den Eijnden 1997; Rusbult et al. 2000). We experience the love-is-blind illusion when we are
blind to our romantic partnersfaults, and perceive our partners as better than average in a
number of domains including intelligence and attractiveness.
Let me focus here on the common tendency to idealise a partner. Research participants,
either dating or married for some time, rated their partners on a list of virtues and faults more
positively than the partners rated themselves (Murray et al. 1996a), which was taken to be a
significant idealisation because people tend to rate themselves more positively than they ought
to. Participants described their partners as having the same qualities they had and as having the
same qualities their ideal partner would have. In the short to medium term, such idealisations
predicted relationship satisfaction better than more realistic evaluations. But what happened in
the longer term, when the relationship progressed and partners had more opportunities to
show their true colours?
There are two competing approaches to long-term relationship success. The traditional
approach supports a disappointment model. Idealising the partners qualities does not lead to
greater relationship satisfaction in the long run, because when evidence cumulates against the
idealised evaluation a more realistic evaluation emerges. The more realistic evaluation is a better
basis for devising strategies to cope with the relationship difficulties that are due to the partners
weaknesses. There is some support for this model: in studies with couples who have been
married for a long time the partners who perceived each other more realistically were also the
ones who reported to be more satisfied with their relationship (Swann et al. 1994). So, according
to the disappointment model, having a realistic view of the partners strenghts and weaknesses is
better than idealising the partner, because the former frame of mind prepares for the inevitable
conflicts that are going to emerge, whilst the latter is destined to cause disappointment.
But there is an alternative model which Sandra Murray and her colleagues endorse, the self-
fulfillment model, which fits the trade-off view to an extent. This focuses on three effects of
partner idealisation. The first is buffering: we have a strong sense of security and confidence in
the relationship as a result of partner idealisation, and are protected from the potentially
disruptive effects of conflict and doubt. The second is transformation: we tend to reinterpret
our partnersweaknesses as strengths, and deal with problems rather than distancing ourselves
as a result. Here is an example: BHillary might quell her disappointment in Bills stubbornness
during conflicts by interpreting it as integrity rather than as egocentrism^(Murray et al. 1996a,
page 80). Buffering contributes to sustaining the motivation to pursue relationship satisfaction
despite conflicts, because it does not undermine our confidence about the relationship poten-
tial; and transformation contributes to our maintaining a positive attitude towards the
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relationship, because apparent evidence against the partner is reinterpreted in a more optimistic
light. Murray and colleagues discuss a third effect of partner idealisation that is more
distinctive to this form of optimism, reflective appraisals: when partners are idealised, they
come to see themselves as we see them, and live up to our high standards. This suggests that
an optimistic attitude towards our partners can change them for the better: B[I]ntimates can
actually turn self-perceived frogs into the princes or princesses they perceive them to be^
(Murray et al. 1996b, page 1158).
Further findings by Murray et al. (1996b) are inconsistent with the disappointment model
and support the self-fulfilling model. First, in couples with high relationship satisfaction the
participantsevaluations of their partners were Bimmune to reality^and remained idealised
through time, suggesting that no disappointment had ensued as a result of conflict. Second,
idealised evaluations of the partner were strongly correlated not only with relationship
satisfaction but also with relationship stability. Over time, the idealised evaluations became
more realistic, not because people experienced disappointment and lowered their expectations
accordingly, but because the partners rose up to the challenge and exhibited the qualities that
were initially attributed to them.
The view that Murray and colleagues defend is that, in the long run, due principally to
reflective appraisals, the gap between idealisation and reality shrinks. Partnersevaluations are
overly positive to start with but become more accurate as the relationship develops. The
conclusion is that Bsatisfying, stable relationships reflect intimatesability to see imperfect
partners in idealized ways^and that Bintimates who idealized one another appeared more
prescient than blind, actually creating the relationships they wished for as romances
progressed^(Murray et al. 1996b, page 1155).
In sum, positive illusions can bring success in romantic relationships not because percep-
tions of the romantic partners are realistic and epistemically rational to start with, but because
they have a positive effect on our behaviour in the relationship and support us in the pursuit of
our relationship-related goals when problems emerge. Further, perceptions of romantic part-
ners in the studies by Murray and colleagues seem to be significantly idealised and to involve
more than a small distortion of reality:
Intimates also appeared to take considerable license in constructing impressions of their
partners. Constructed representationswhat intimates saw in their partners that their
partners did not see in themselvesappeared to reflect their tendency to see their
partners as they wished to see them, through the filters provided by their ideals and
rosy self-images. (Murray et al. 1996a,page92).
The idealisation of romantic partners helps us continue to value the relationship as something
worth working on, and is linked to more satisfying and more stable relationships in both the
short and the long term. This suggests that the perceptions of romantic partners leading to
better relationships are those that affect behaviour by increasing resilience.
5 Our Future Is Healthy
Next, let me consider how positive illusions impact on lifestyle choices affecting health
prospects, and in particular whether they are linked to health-promoting behaviour.
In a now classic study, a counterintuitive result was observed: seropositive men were shown
to be significantly more optimistic about not getting AIDS than seronegative men (Taylor et al.
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1992). The participants in the experiment showed all three positive illusions: they had an
illusion of control over their life events (e.g., BStaying healthy and active will prevent AIDS^),
an illusion of superiority manifesting with the attribution of several positive features to
themselves (e.g., BMy immune system is better than average^), and unwarranted optimism
about future health prospects (BIwont develop AIDS^). Interestingly, such illusions were a
response to the threat that seropositivity posed to the participants. Men who had been tested
and had decided not to know whether their status was seropositive or seronegative did not
show positive illusions to the same extent.
Positive illusions were Bassociated with reduced fatalistic vulnerability regarding AIDS,
with the use of positive attitudes as a coping technique, with the use of personal growth/
helping others as a coping technique, with less use of avoidant coping strategies, and with
greater practice of health-promoting behaviors^(Taylor and Brown 1994, page 24, my
emphasis). In the study, people who were more optimistic with respect to their health prospects
were also found to be willing to make greater lifestyle changes in order to preserve their health,
and the benefits could not be attributed to dispositional optimism because seropositive and
seronegative men did not differ with respect to that.
Two common explanations for the link between optimism and health were invoked in this
particular case: just like dispositional optimism, unrealistic optimism reduces stress in threat
situations, sustaining our motivation to engage in health-promoting behaviour; and it can lead
to effective coping strategies, enabling us to face rather than deny or avoid our problems. In the
study, AIDS-specific unrealistic optimism had more significant effects on seropositive than
seronegative men. Seropositive men were more likely to look for social support and more
likely to believe that they had a control over their future health prospects.
People who have a positive sense of self-worth, belief in their own control, and
optimism about the future may be more likely to practice conscientious health habits
and to use services appropriately. (Taylor et al. 2000,page100)
Positive illusions also arise in those of us who have already experienced illness and have to
adjust to uncertainty in their health prospects. The sense that we can control our future health
prospects has been linked to successful adjustment. For instance, it has been shown that
women diagnosed with breast cancer cope better with their difficult situation when they adopt
self-enhancing beliefs, such as BI am stronger as a result of the illness^or BI can cope better
with cancer than other cancer patients^, and exhibit some illusion of control, such as in the
statement: BI am in control of my health condition now^(Taylor 1983;Tayloretal.1984;
Taylor and Sherman 2008). Both in the prevention and the management of illness, positive
illusions can contribute to good health outcomes. People seem to behave more responsibly if
they believe that it is in their power to avoid or at least delay illness.
In this section, I focused on the contribution of optimistic beliefs to the promotion of
attitudes and behaviours related to better health outcomes or better adjustment in people whose
health is under threat. Crucially, it is not the realism or epistemic rationality of the adopted
belief that predicts its efficacy with respect to health promotion or psychological adjustment.
The beliefs reported in the studies were more than just small distortions of reality, as the
authors themselves notice discussing the study on women who had breast cancer:
A surprising, somewhat startling finding of the research was that some of the positive
beliefs these women developed about their breast cancer experience were illusory
(Taylor 1983). Many women expressed the belief that they could personally control
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the cancer and keep it from coming back. Others insisted they had been cured, although
their records showed them to have progressing illness. Despite the fact that these beliefs
were inconsistent with objective medical evidence, they were associated with the criteria
normally associated with mental health and not with psychological distress. (Taylor et al.
2000, page 99)
The positive outcomes are due to the beliefs role in supporting a conception of the person not
as a helpless victim, but as an agent who can determine what her future is going to be. Success
in this area means that the agent believes that she can address her health problems, and
attempts to solve them by changing her behaviour, without denying existing challenges or
threats. Thus, the beliefs that leads to better outcomes are linked to behavioural changes in the
face of threats.
6 Optimistic People as Better Agents
As we saw in section 3, where we introduced the traditional view and the trade-off view, the
former offers an oversimplified account of the relationship between having true beliefs and
psychological wellbeing, potentially leading to an unjustified stigmatisation of poor mental
health as a manifestation of irrationality. The trade-off view avoids that problem, but in order to
explain how optimistic beliefs can be harmful, commits itself to the claim that the optimistic
beliefs leading to psychological wellbeing are those that involve just a small distortion of
Both the traditional view and the trade-off view have implications for the goals of
psychological interventions. According to the traditional view, psychological health is en-
hanced when the capacity to have true beliefs is introduced or restored.
The ability to perceive reality as it reallyis is fundamental to effective functioning. It is
considered one of the two preconditions to the development of the healthy personality.
(Jourard and Landsman 1980, page 75)
According to the trade-off view, instead, psychological health is enhanced when beliefs are
distorted in the right way and to the right extent.
Increasingly, we must view the psychologically healthy person not as someone who sees
things as they are but as someone who sees things as he or she would like them to be.
Effective functioning in everyday life appears to depend upon interrelated positive
illusions, systematic small distortions of reality that make things appear better than they
are. (Taylor 1989,page228)
The studies about romantic relationships and future health prospects reviewed in sections 4and 5
are not satisfactorily explained either by the traditional view or by the trade-off view. The results
we discussed suggest that the beliefs leading to better relationships and better health outcomes are
optimistically biased, and biased to such an extent that they are likely to involve a major
idealisation of reality at the time of their adoption. What can explain those results?
Armor and Taylor (1998) propose three criteria for beneficial optimism: we benefit from (a)
believing that we have skills or talents that cannot be easily measured or verified; (b) believing
that we can control events that can actually be controlled, at least to some extent; and (c)
believing in positive outcomes that are not too unrealistic. As a result, the ensuing beliefs are
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strategic, in the sense that optimism is applied selectively; responsive, in the sense that
optimism is sensitive to the features of the situation; and bounded, in the sense that there is
a limit to how optimistic they are. By not being easily falsifiable and having a positive, but not
implausible, content, strategic, responsive and bounded beliefs are likely to allow transforma-
tion without bringing about disappointment, just like the general expectations arising in people
who are dispositionally optimistic (Armor and Taylor 1998, page 364). Although this is a
thoughtful proposal it is silent about the benefits of major idealisations.
Taylor and Sherman (2008) take a different, more promising, line focusing on the link
between optimistically biased beliefs and goal pursuit. It is because we are optimistic about
how competent and efficacious we are, and about how desirable and attainable our goals are,
that we continue to cherish our goals and pursue them after setbacks.
Believing one has many talents and positive qualities, and more talents and more positive
qualities than ones peers, allows one to feel good about the self and to deal with the stressful
circumstances of daily life with the resources conferred by a positive sense of self. As such,
these self-enhancing beliefs help people thrive in times of stress that might otherwise leave
them dispirited and unable to pursue their goals. (Taylor and Sherman 2008, page 59)
Taylor and Sheeman identify one of the key factors, which is the capacity that some beliefs
have to support our sense of agency and motivate us to pursue our goals. If we revisit the
studies on romantic partners and health prospects in the light of this reading, we find that
optimistically biased beliefs in the relationship domain (such as the idealisation of our
romantic partners) are linked to relationship satisfaction and stability when they have a positive
effect on our capacity to address challenges. In particular, the belief that the partners share
features with us and with our ideal partners sustains our motivation to solve the problems our
relationship may be facing. The relationship is viewed as desirable and worth fighting for.
Optimistically biased beliefs in the health domain (such as the belief that we are in control of
our health, at least to some extent, and are better placed to avoid illness than other people in a
similar situation) are linked to effective coping in the presence of threats and to engagement in
health-promoting behaviour. Our illusions of superiority and control motivate us to modify our
behaviour in order to pursue better health prospects and to regard the goals of better health or
illness avoidance as attainable.
When we experience illusions of control and superiority we feel that it is in our power to
intervene on what goes on in our lives. We become resilient, addressing the inevitable crises in
a constructive way (BI can fix this^). Positive illusions play the role of Albert Bandurasself-
efficacy beliefs and as such support goal fulfilment.
People's self-efficacy beliefs determine their level of motivation, as reflected in how
much effort they will exert in an endeavor and how long they will persevere in the face
of obstacles. The stronger the belief in their capabilities, the greater and more persistent
are their efforts (...). Strong perseverance usually pays off in performance accomplish-
ments. (Bandura 1989,page1175)
Beliefs about self-efficacy and competence are often biased, as we tend to overestimate our
capacity to intervene in the environment and to execute the course of action required to attain a
given goal (Krueger and Dickson 1994). However, as the psychological literature on self-
efficacy suggests, our beliefs underlie various aspects of behaviour that are genuinely agentic,
such as taking advantage of existing opportunities, creating new opportunities, being assertive
in the pursuit of our goals, and being willing to change a situation to better fit our interests,
530 L. Bortolotti
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aspirations, and expectations (see for instance, Bandura 2006 and Sadri 1996). Agentic
behaviour is correlated with persistence in the pursuit of our goals, and indirectly increases
our chances of success.
Positive illusions can translate into effective coping at critical times: we continue to pursue our
goals because we believe that we have the capacity to attain our goals, due to self-enhancing
beliefs, and illusions of control and superiority. We are willing to devise solutions to our current
problems, be these conflicts in the relationship or health threats, because the goals appear to us as
still desirable and attainable, due to the optimism bias. Instead of building irrational defences
against reality or denying relationship issues and health threats to feel better about our current
situation, we acknowledge the problems and take steps to solve them (Boyd-Wilson et al. 2004).
In sum, the link between optimistic beliefs and success cannot be adequately explained in
terms of avoiding major distortions of reality. Some optimistic beliefs are realistic or only
moderately illusory but fail to play a role in preserving engagement and motivation in the face
of challenges. Other beliefs are more than just moderately unrealistic but help sustain changes
in behaviour that makes the desired reality come true. If in order to attain our goals we needed
our optimistic beliefs to be almost accurate, then it would be difficult to account for the role of
partner idealisation in relationship satisfaction, or to explain why seropositive men who
believe that their chances of getting AIDS are smaller than warranted by the evidence cope
so well with their challenging situation.
In order for us to be successful agents in the face of constant challenges, we need to believe
that we can change things for the better, and in order to do that we need to have a sense of
competence, control, and efficacy that propels us forward, a sense that our goals are indeed
desirable and attainable. The view I am proposing, that optimism leads to success when it
supports agency, has implications for psychological interventions. We should encourage the
adoption of beliefs about our capacity to control events that are important to us, as such beliefs
have a beneficial effect on our perseverance in pursuing the goals that we may initially fail to
achieve. Also, we should encourage the adoption of beliefs that emphasise our resources as agents
without denying the reality of the setbacks we might experience, as such beliefs are instrumental
to enhancing resilience, building our capacity to engage in agentic behaviour at critical times.
7 Conclusions
Do optimistic beliefs contribute to success? First, based on recent empirical evidence about the
various effects of positive illusions, I argued that not all optimistic beliefs are equally
beneficial. Some beliefs about our capacity to control independent events that are important
to us help us persevere in pursuing the goals that we initially fail to achieve. Some illusory
beliefs that emphasise our resources as agents without denying the reality of the setbacks we
might experience are instrumental to our capacity to engage in agentic behaviour at critical
times. But other self-enhancing beliefs that boost mood and self-esteem at first, because they
give us a sense of invulnerability, may prevent us from adequately preparing for the challenges
ahead and lead to failure and disengagement.
As it is the impact of optimistically biased beliefs on behaviour that counts, and not their
positive or optimistic content as such, what leads to success is the capacity some beliefs have to
sustain our motivation to act in pursuit of our goals. This is indirectly confirmed by the fact that
other psychological constructs, distinct from (but related to) optimism, have been developed to
explain how our chances of goal attainment are enhanced by sustained motivation. Among
Optimism, Agency, and Success 531
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these, we find sense of coherence (Antonovsky 1987), hardiness (Maddi 2013), preparedness
(Sweeny et al. 2006), and self-affirmation (Hall et al. 2014; Haushofer and Fehr 2014).
The sense of coherence consists of three components: Bcomprehensibility, the extent to
which an individual can make sense of adversity; manageability, the extent to which an
individual perceives that resources are at her or his disposal to meet the challenges of
inordinate demands; and meaningfulness, the extent to which an individual feels that the
challenges faced are worth engagement with^(Almedom 2005, page 259). The most obvious
overlap with optimism is in the sense that we are sufficiently resourceful and skilled to tackle
existing problems (Grevenstein et al. 2016).
Next, hardiness is defined as Ba pattern of attitudes and strategies that together facilitate
turning stressful circumstances from potential disasters into growth opportunities^(Maddi
2013). Hardiness includes a commitment to ourselves and work, a sense of personal control
over our experiences and outcomes, and the perception that change represents a challenge and
should be treated as an opportunity for growth rather than a threat. Hardy people are curious
and engaged, and they see challenges as opportunities to grow and improve (Shepperd and
Kashani 1991), being often inspired and motivated to act as a result. The most obvious overlap
with optimism can be found in the dimension of control.
A third construct is preparedness, that is Ba readiness to deal with setbacks and a readiness
to take advantage of opportunities^(Sweeny et al. 2006). This notion was inspired by studies
suggesting that optimism seems to fade just before we are due to receive feedback or learn
about the outcome of our efforts. This is because we need to be ready to respond to uncertainty
and brace ourselves for undesired outcomes to avoid disappointment. So, preparedness is
sometimes served better by optimism, when we are about to take opportunities and are geared
towards pursuing our goals; and sometimes is served better by adopting a more realistic stance,
when we need to respond to changes in our environment (Carroll and Shepperd 2009).
Finally, self-affirmation is an intervention that has been tested in adverse circumstances that
are stigmatising and compromise our decision making. Take poverty: the negative affective
states it causes lead us to make short-sighted and risk-averse decisions that are often self-
defeating (Haushofer and Fehr 2014). But if we are encouraged to describe past achievements
that gave us a sense of pride before making a decision, then our decision making improves and
we are more likely to think in ways that show intelligence and flexibility, and to take advantage
of the opportunities available to us (Hall et al. 2014). There are interesting parallels between
self-affirmation and optimism, among which the emphasis on agency and self-fulfilment.
Although the above constructs are defined and measured in different ways, they are in some
cases highly correlated to one another (e.g., Posadzki et al. 2010) and they seem to converge
on the positive contribution that self-related optimistic attitudes make to motivation.
In this paper I presented some reasons to believe that optimistically biased beliefs can help
us attain our goals by sustaining our motivation to act after we experience setbacks or when
some of our cherished goals are under threat. Given that optimistically biased beliefs can be
intervened on, should we attempt to eliminate the bias or should we try and instil it in those of
us who seem to be immune from it, such as people with depressive symptoms? The current
empirical evidence suggests caution. Whereas strategies should be devised to encourage the
adoption of beliefs that help us respond contructively to challenges, we should avoid adopting
beliefs that make us feel invulnerable. Optimistic beliefs that are unwarranted at the time of
their adoption contribute to our chances of success if they support our sense of ourselves as
competent and efficacious agents and present our goals as attainable and desirable, because
they make us more resilient and persistent in the pursuit of our goals.
532 L. Bortolotti
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License (, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and repro-
duction in any medium, provided you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a
link to the Creative Commons license, and indicate if changes were made.
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... Sharot (2011) estimates that 80% of individuals display an optimistic bias with the effect seen across gender, race, nationality, and age. Holding such optimistic beliefs has benefits for well-being, functioning, resilience, and prosocial behaviour (Bortolotti, 2018). Additionally, when faced with adversity, having higher levels of optimism is associated with better subjective well-being, more positive coping styles, engaging in health protection behaviours, more positive interpersonal relationships, persistence in education, and higher levels of income (Carver et al., 2010). ...
Full-text available
Adults hold optimistic beliefs for online behaviours, displaying a general tendency to believe that they are less likely to experience general risks than others. Study 1 explored whether young adults displayed comparative optimism judgements for four types of specific risks that were relevant to a UK sample. Study 2 addressed methodological weaknesses associated with assessing comparative optimism. Study 1 explored 227 (194 female, 31 male, 1 non-binary, and 1 gender not disclosed) young adults’ (MAge = 20.75, SDAge = 4.22) comparative optimistic beliefs for unwanted contact, hoaxes, behavioural, and sexual online risks that were contextualised to the UK. In study 2, young adults (134 female, 30 male, 1 non-binary, and 1 gender fluid, MAge = 20.72, SDAge = 3.39) provided judgements for four online risks for the general public and the comparator groups used in study 1. Participants were then provided with the prevalence rate for each risk according to data for the UK and then asked to repeat the judgments for each comparator group. Study 1 identified optimistic beliefs across the four risks, with family and the self judged to be less at risk. Study 2 revealed that again family was perceived to be at the lowest risk followed by the self. Knowledge of the actual risk led to a reduction in perceived risk for unwanted contact and hoaxes but little change for behavioural or sexual risks. Together, the findings have implications for understanding perceptions of online risk and how campaigns to promote digital safety are designed.
... Further, optimism has been correlated to higher levels of success. It can be cultivated and enhanced just like other domains of PsyCap (Bortolotti, 2018). ...
Purpose The construct of psychological capital or PsyCap (consisting of the positive psychological resources of hope, self-efficacy, optimism and resilience) has been demonstrated to relate to employees’ attitudinal and behavioral outcomes. The purpose of this study is to investigate the influence of positive psychological capital on mental health, readiness for organizational change, and job insecurity in the wake of COVID-19 pandemic. Design/methodology/approach Data were collected from 567 hotel employees working in hotels in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. A quantitative approach was used and employees were requested to fill the questionnaires. Findings Results show that psychological capital enhances an employee’s mental health and readiness for the organizational change. Moreover, PsyCap is found to negatively impact the perceptions of job insecurity among hotel employees. The study has useful managerial implications for hoteliers, especially, in the wake of COVID-19 pandemic. Originality/value This is the first study of its kind to link hotel employees’ positive psychological capital with their perceptions about job insecurity and mental health. COVID-19 pandemic has hit the world fiercely and new normal expects employees to be ready to embrace changes in organizations. This study contributes to the literature on hospitality management by linking psychological capital with hotel employees’ readiness for organizational change in the context of Coronavirus.
... Sometimes true beliefs hinder or scupper our plans. There is, for instance, a lot of psychological research on the value of positive illusions (Bortolotti, 2018;Jefferson et al., 2017). The practical importance of this research is disputed but there does seem to be some evidence suggesting that people that are unrealistically optimistic about their health or personal circumstances score more highly on certain measures of well-being and, even more starkly, on certain health outcomes (Murray & Holmes, 1997;Schiavon et al., 2017;Taylor & Brown, 1994). ...
Full-text available
Technologies can have profound effects on social moral systems. Is there any way to systematically investigate and anticipate these potential effects? This paper aims to contribute to this emerging field on inquiry through a case study method. It focuses on two core human values—truth and trust—describes their structural properties and conceptualisations, and then considers various mechanisms through which technology is changing and can change our perspective on those values. In brief, the paper argues that technology is transforming these values by changing the costs/benefits of accessing them; allowing us to substitute those values for other, closely-related ones; increasing their perceived scarcity/abundance; and disrupting traditional value-gatekeepers. This has implications for how we study other, technologically-mediated, value changes.
... Techno-optimists sometimes adopt a similar view, holding out that technology is some kind of elemental force that will save us from ourselves. That said, optimism can also be associated with a 'can-do' attitude and a belief that human agency can make a positive difference to the future (Bortolotti 2018). ...
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What is techno-optimism and how can it be defended? Although techno-optimist views are widely espoused and critiqued, there have been few attempts to systematically analyse what it means to be a techno-optimist and how one might defend this view. This paper attempts to address this oversight by providing a comprehensive analysis and evaluation of techno-optimism. It is argued that techno-optimism is a pluralistic stance that comes in weak and strong forms. These vary along a number of key dimensions but each shares the view that technology plays a key role in ensuring that the good prevails over the bad. Whatever its strength, to defend this stance, one must flesh out an argument with four key premises. Each of these premises is highly controversial and can be subjected to a number of critiques. The paper discusses five such critiques in detail (the values critique, the treadmill critique, the sustainability critique, the irrationality critique and the insufficiency critique). The paper also considers possible responses from the techno-optimist. Finally, it is concluded that although strong forms of techno-optimism are not intellectually defensible, a modest, agency-based version of techno-optimism may be defensible.
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This paper argues that there are important irrational elements to love. In the philosophical literature, we typically find that love is either thought of as rational or arational and that any irrational elements are thought to be defective, or extraneous to love itself. We argue, on the contrary, that irrationality is in part connected to what we find valuable about love. We focus on 3 basic elements of love: 1) Whom you love 2) How much you love them 3) How much of a role love plays in your life And in each case, we argue that love can be irrational and valuable.
I discuss modern art in relation to hope, using as a case study the stylistically and ideologically diametrically opposed paintings produced in the two Koreas: the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the Republic of Korea during the 1970s and 1980s. I narrow the comparison by limiting the discussion of the latter context to the artist Chung Sang Hwa (or Chung Sang-Hwa), who has subsequently become well-known internationally in relation to the tendency dubbed ‘Dansaekhwa’ – the Korean term for ‘monochrome’ or ‘one-colour-painting.’ In opposition to Chung’s work, I discuss the North Korean variant of Socialist Realism, Juche Realism, the official (and only) form of art in the DPRK to this day. I consider the role of positive thoughts and emotions, in particular expectation, optimism, and especially, hope in determining why this art was produced and how it was received. I argue that as part of the program in which art is subordinated to political ritual, North Korean art encodes signs of social optimism. Chung Sang Hwa, by contrast, is symptomatic of a tendency in South Korean art of the period to absorb important values from western culture, blending them with intimate knowledge of local traditions and values. Chung ritualized the art making process itself as a highly personalized source of hope. In the senses in which I use the linked terms ‘optimism’ and ‘hope,’ the former implies art as a tool of wish-fulfillment aimed at pacifying people in the present. By contrast, the ‘hope’ I refer to in relation to Chung involves the refusal to instrumentalize art, combined with the obligation to use art to face up to the potentially cataclysmic challenges of an uncertain world.
Background Resilience among adolescents can best be understood by examining the risk and protective factors in the lives of at-risk adolescents. A standardized tool to identify adolescent psychosocial risk and protective factors may help better understand the strengths, vulnerabilities, and the potential for resilience among adolescents. Hence, the present study aims to identify and measure the risk and protective factors in the lives of adolescents. Methods A sequential exploratory mixed-methods design was used to develop a tool that measures risk and protective factors among adolescents. The qualitative study explored psychosocial risk and protective factors among high-risk adolescents using 4 major domains: individual, family, school, and community. To develop the tool, prisoners (N = 12), caregivers of the prisoners’ children (N = 12), teachers of the prisoners’ children (N = 12), and prison authorities (N = 12) were interviewed about their experiences with prisoners’ children. The interview data were analyzed, and items reflecting the risk and protective factors in the lives of the adolescent children of incarcerated parents were generated. The item pool consisting of 239 items was administered to a sample of 312 rural adolescent students. To validate the risk factors scale and protective factors scale, self-report scales measuring behavior problems, adjustment, well-being, and positivity were used. Results The new tool developed to measure the risk and protective factors for adolescent psychosocial development was found to have adequate test-retest reliability, content validity, convergent validity, and divergent validity. Conclusion In this study, a scale to identify psychosocial risk and protective factors was developed and standardized. The tool will be helpful to psychologists and counselors working with adolescents to understand the risks and protective factors present in their lives and design interventions to nurture resilience in them.
In the last three decades, the theory of strategic conflict management has been developed so that it is a strong framework for considering the factors that influence an organization’s response to crises and identifying the importance for dynamic and flexible approaches to crisis decision-making and communication. While leadership is considered one of the critical internal contingency factors but individual characteristics of key decision-makers, like the CEO, are also one of the most understudied ones. At the same time, the concept of optimism has long been explored as a factor influencing performance and positive outcomes in many arenas, but with scant evidence in the application to senior-level leadership or crisis contexts. In fact, in the crisis literature where optimism and pessimism is addressed, it largely argues that crisis leaders should adopt a pessimistic mindset. For this study senior-leaders in multinational companies responsible for managing employees in an average of 70 countries each and with extensive crisis leadership experience reflect on their own experiences during crises. Findings indicate that optimism is a critical trait in successful crisis leadership connecting to positive outcomes for the teams and organizations. These data also provide critical insights that develop a stronger understanding of contingency planning in crisis management because we have identified a trait that amongst an elite group of managers with extensive crisis experience was consistently attributed to their own success as crisis leaders.
This ameliorative project of love investigates how we can improve how we use the concept ‘love’, formulating better and worse forms of loving. It compares two contemporary analytic philosophers who have argued for different but related accounts of love as looking. By comparing David Velleman’s and Iris Murdoch’s account of love, I argue that Velleman’s account is not suitable for this ameliorative project, while Murdoch’s account enables us to be better lovers. We would all love better if we think of love as a practice of attending to one another—a process that requires continuous work. Murdoch is able to talk about love as an activity, instead of the passive evaluation that Velleman describes. ‘Love’ as a practice is able to look at the reality of people as opposed to the self-serving fantasies we might have. Such a practice will not only make us better lovers, it could also be used politically: a moral practice of ‘loving attention’ could actively combat privileged blindness.
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There is a growing crisis of mental and substance use disorders (MSUDs), especially in adolescents and young adults, and this is expected to further escalate very rapidly as a consequence of the coronavirus disease 2019 pandemic and the economic downturn. Dispositional optimism is an effective buffer against the development of mental disorders and a change from pessimism to optimism empowers individuals with rational choices, decisions, and helps control high-risk behaviors. A proactive preventive intervention with learned optimism skill sets started much earlier in life is expected to offer benefits for the mental health and well-being of young individuals and emerging adults. In this review, we discuss the burden of MSUDs among young individuals and summarize the rationale and unmet need for learned optimism as a protective behavior against MSUDs. © Sajita Setia et al., 2021; Published by Mary Ann Liebert, Inc. 2021.
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Here we consider the nature of unrealistic optimism and other related positive illusions. We are interested in whether cognitive states that are unrealistically optimistic are belief states, whether they are false, and whether they are epistemically irrational. We also ask to what extent unrealistically optimistic cognitive states are fixed. Based on the classic and recent empirical literature on unrealistic optimism, we offer some preliminary answers to these questions, thereby laying the foundations for answering further questions about unrealistic optimism, such as whether it has biological, psychological, or epistemic benefits.
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Although the ability to evaluate one’s own knowledge and performance is critical to learning, the correlation between students’ self-evaluation and actual performance measures is modest at best. In this study we examine the effect of offering extra credit for students’ accurate prediction (self-accuracy) of their performance on four exams in two semester-long classes on Personality. The courses emphasized the role of self-awareness. Despite these motivational interventions and performance feedback, there was minimal change in accuracy over the semester; a large proportion of students remained unrealistically optimistic about their performance in the face of evidence to the contrary. Moreover, inaccurately inflated confidence was related to poorer academic performance. A small minority of students improved in accuracy and exam performance over the each of the courses, offering a potentially useful source of comparison for addressing unrealistic optimism. We discuss the findings as reflecting the powerful influence of protecting self-esteem and suggest the need for realistic self-appraisal as a factor in academic success
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Sense of coherence (SOC), resilience, dispositional optimism, and self-compassion are highly related aspects of personality that promote health and well-being. We systematically compared these constructs and explored their criterion validity when predicting psychological distress. With the help of structural equation modeling, we examined SOC's factor structure and incremental validity over resilience (N1 = 208) as well as over optimism and self-compassion (N2 = 308) in two studies. Despite strong overlap (shared variance) SOC clearly outperformed its competitors. Neither resilience, nor optimism, nor self-compassion had significant incremental validity over SOC on a latent level. A two-factor model for SOC explained most variance in psychological distress. Results highlight the importance of salutogenic factors even in a neck-to-neck comparison with other potentially health-benefitting personality variables. Meaningfulness appears to contribute to SOC's uniqueness.
We examined whether, how, and when relational closeness reduces self-enhancement and, more specifically, the self-serving bias (SSB). Relational closeness was either measured or induced. In several experiments, either relationally close or relationally distant dyads worked on interdependent outcomes tasks. The SSB was present in members of distant dyads (i.e., participants took individual credit for the dyadic success but blamed the partner for the dyadic failure), but absent in members of close dyads (i.e., participants were equally likely to take personal responsibility for the success or the failure of the dyad). The gracious attributional pattern of close dyad members is due to: (a) forming a favorable impression of the partner; and (b) expecting attributional generosity from the partner. In fact, when the partner violates this expectancy (i.e., when helshe displays the SSB), members of close dyads respond by manifesting the SSB in turn. We discuss these and several other contingencies that are likely to keep an individual's self-enhancement tendencies in check.
One of the most salient attributes of information is valence: whether a piece of news is good or bad. Contrary to classic learning theories, which implicitly assume beliefs are adjusted similarly regardless of valence, we review evidence suggesting that different rules and mechanisms underlie learning from desirable and undesirable information. For self-relevant beliefs this asymmetry generates a positive bias, with significant implications for individuals and society. We discuss the boundaries of this asymmetry, characterize the neural system supporting it, and describe how changes in this circuit are related to individual differences in behavior.