How the Power of Positive Thinking Won Scientific Credibility

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Psychologist Michael F. Scheier reflects on his groundbreaking 1985 research, which provided the scientific framework for exploring the real power of optimism.

Research Redux
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In just the last year, hundreds of academic papers have been published studying the health effects of expecting good things to happen, which researchers call "dispositional optimism." They've linked this positive outlook on life to everything from decreased feelings of loneliness to increased pain tolerance.

Oddly enough, three decades ago, the outlook for research on optimism didn't look very good. But then, in 1985, Michael F. Scheier and Charles S. Carver's published their seminal study, "Optimism, Coping, and Health: Assessment and Implications of Generalized Outcome Expectancies" in Health Psychology. Researchers immediately embraced the simple hopefulness test they included in the paper and their work has now been cited in at least 3,145 other published works. Just as importantly, by testing the effect of a personality variable on a person's physical health, Scheier and Carver helped bridge the gap between the worlds of psychology and biology. After the paper, scientists had a method for seriously studying the healing powers of positive thinking.

In the Q&A below, Scheier reflects on his influential work with Carver and shares how their humble study on human motivation ultimately inspired countless studies on mind-body interactions. He also assesses why their optimism scale was an instant hit in the scientific community, how their findings have been adapted by other researchers, and the future of our understanding of hope and well-being.

How did the research come about?

Chuck Carver from the University of Miami and I were doing research on human motivation. We were trying to understand how to think about goal-directed behavior, and expectancies were an important part of our approach. The idea was, and still is, that when people encounter difficulties doing what it is that they intend to do, some sort of mental calculation takes place that results in the generation of an outcome expectancy -- the person's subjective assessment of the likelihood that he or she will succeed. We thought these expectancies played a role in the nature of the affect that was experienced and the person's subsequent behavior.

Initially, we considered outcome expectancies in a very circumscribed way. We focused on specific situations manipulated in controlled experimental contexts to validate our ideas. For example, we studied snake phobics who approached a boa constrictor in a cage. We weren't interested in snakes or phobias per se but in how these expectations drove behaviors.

At some point in the early 1980s, things changed. A number of our colleagues in health psychology -- my wife, Karen Matthews, included -- urged or maybe even challenged us to consider applying some of our ideas to real-world settings, particularly those that might be relevant to well-being. Our formal area of study in graduate school was also personality, and I started to hear the voice of my advisor, Arnie Buss, in my head gently pushing us to do what it was that we had been trained to do.

This confluence of events started us thinking about expectancies in a broader way that might be more reflective of stable expectancies for positive or negative things to occur. And voila! We found ourselves interested in dispositional optimism, which we define as the general expectation that good, versus bad, things will happen across important life domains.

What were your goals? Was there a research gap you were hoping to fill back then?

Once we knew what we wanted to study, we looked around the literature to see if there was a scale that assessed dispositional optimism that was consistent with how we viewed the construct. We couldn't find anything that was right on the mark, so we set out to make our own measure for dispositional optimism using a self-report questionnaire (PDF of updated version). Along with that came the job of establishing the statistical characteristics, or psychometric properties, of the scale. This became part of the purpose of our original paper too.

We also wanted to show that differences in optimism and pessimism predicted some health-relevant outcomes, so we explored the development of physical symptoms reported among a group of undergraduates during a particularly stressful portion of the academic semester. We were fortunate to get the paper published in a journal, Health Psychology, that enabled a lot of researchers to become familiar with the scale, findings, and ideas.

"We know why optimists do better than pessimists," says Scheier. "Optimists are not simply being Pollyannas; they're problem solvers who try to improve the situation."

I think one reason the work was picked up so much is that we provided a tool that enabled scientists to ask their own questions and do their own research in the area. Prior to the publication of our scale, there were well-known testimonials on "the power of positive thinking," but there was no simple way to verify if the testimonials were correct. I think it also helped that our scale was easy to use and score. It only has six items on it! The brevity enabled lots of people to include it in their work, even if that involved very large epidemiological studies where issues of respondent burden and time limitations are paramount. As a result, an enormous amount of research on optimism has been generated over the years.

How far has our understanding of optimism come since?

A lot of research has been done since we published our first paper, and the vast majority has examined the relationship of optimism and well-being. I think it's now safe to say that optimism is clearly associated with better psychological health, as seen through lower levels of depressed mood, anxiety, and general distress, when facing difficult life circumstances, including situations involving recovery from illness and disease. A smaller, but still substantial, amount of research has studied associations with physical well-being. And I think most researchers at this point would agree that optimism is connected to positive physical health outcomes, including decreases in the likelihood of re-hospitalization following surgery, the risk of developing heart disease, and mortality.

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Hans Villarica writes for and produces The Atlantic's Health channel. His work has appeared in TIME, People Asia, and Fast Company.

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