Optimist Prime

In 1988, the Berkeley swim team took part in an unique experiment. Each swimmer was asked to swim one of his (or her) best events as fast as he could. Their coaches then told them that their times were slightly worse than they actually were. After a sufficient rest, the swimmers were then asked to swim again. While some of the athletes performed the same, others did much better, and others–even some of the team’s stars–did far worse than they had the first time.

What makes this experiment particularly intriguing is that the researcher who designed it–Martin Seligman* from the University of Pennsylvania–was able to predict which swimmers would perform the same or better during their second trial, and which would perform worse.

The determining factor was the athlete’s “explanatory style”–or, put more simply, whether he was an optimist or pessimist.

We all contextualize the events in our lives in a way to give them meaning. We fit them into our belief systems. Let’s say you lose an important bout in a competition. You may say to yourself, “I wasn’t as focused as I should have been,” or you may say, “My opponent got lucky,” or, “I always underperform in high-stress situations,” or, “The referee stole those touches from me.” There are many possibilities, some more optimistic, some more pessimistic.

We can break down explanatory styles into the following dimensions:
Permanent vs. Temporary
Specific vs. Universal
Internal vs. External

We define events that happen to us as either permanent (this is the way it will always be) or temporary (this is short-term),specific (this is an isolated situation) or universal (this is an example of how everything is), internal (this is all because of me) or external (this is because of someone or something else).

An optimistic view would be to look at good events as permanent, universal, and internal, while bad events would be perceived as temporary, specific, and external. A pessimistic view, however, would be completely reversed: good events would be temporary, specific, and external, while bad events would be permanent, universal, and internal.

So when someone with a pessimistic explanatory style encounters failure, it’s hugely devastating–after all, the failure represents a permanent, pervasive deficiency. Someone with an optimistic explanatory style reacts quite differently. While no one–optimist nor pessimist–is happy about failure, the optimist will see the failure as a challenge, rather than a permanent weakness, and he will rise to it.

Explanatory style helps explain why some fencers (even some very strong ones) will fall apart after losing a pool bout–or even just a few touches–to a weaker opponent. Rather than brushing off the loss, they are crippled by it. It also explains why some fencers seem to regularly beat expectations, fencing way beyond what their technical level would suggest. Further, explanatory style is a good indicator of who would likely win in a 14-14 situation: optimists are far more successful in close, high-pressure situations.

Similar ideas are paralleled in Carol Dweck’s work.**

Perhaps the most important thing to understand, however, is that explanatory styles can be changed. Pessimists can learn to change their thinking and their beliefs, and become optimists.

Seligman and others provide very straight-forward methods to changing one’s explanatory style. Once you know your explanatory style, making any necessary adjustment will likely have a significant impact on your fencing, learning, and life.

And that’s not overly optimistic.

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*Seligman is well-known in psychology for having developed the theory of learned helplessness. His book Learned Optimism is a valuable read.

**Dweck’s Mindsets covers material that is very related and reveals some very exciting ideas about how our beliefs affect performance.