Behavioral Research

Table of Contents
1 Definition and History

Methodological Issues


Measures and Measurements


Usefulness of Constructs and Measures



6 References
7 Measures Appendix
8 Published Examples

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Other Constructs



Dispositional Optimism




Illness Representations

  Implementation Intentions
  Intention, Expectation, and Willingness
  Normative Beliefs
  Optimistic Bias
  Perceived Benefits
  Perceived Control
  Perceived Severity
  Perceived Vulnerability
  Self-Reported Behavior
  Social Influence
  Social Support

Dispositional Optimism
Charles S. Carver

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Methodological Issues

Related Constructs

One methodological issue concerning optimism is that several other constructs exist that relate to optimism but are not quite the same as optimism. Two that are closely related to each other are the sense of control (e.g., Thompson, 2002) and the sense of personal efficacy (e.g., Bandura, 1997). These concepts have strong overtones of expecting desired outcomes, as does optimism. However, there is a difference in the assumptions made (or not made) about how the desired outcomes are expected to occur. Self-efficacy is a concept in which the self as a causal agent is paramount (see Self-Efficacy in Other Constructs). If people have high self-efficacy expectancies, they presumably believe that their personal efforts (or personal skills) are what will determine the outcome. If, for example, you believe you have the personal fortitude to overcome the side-effects of chemotherapy, you are more likely to struggle harder to do so. The same is true of the concept of control. When people see themselves as being in control, they believe that the desired outcome will occur through their own personal efforts.

In contrast to this emphasis, optimism takes a broader view of the potential causal forces assumed to be at work. People can be optimistic because they are immensely talented, because they are hard-working, because they are blessed, because they are lucky, because they have friends in the right places, or any combination of these or other factors that produce good outcomes (cf. Murphy et al., 2000). For example, a person could be optimistic about being able to overcome side effects of chemotherapy either because of her personal fortitude or because her oncologist has a useful bag of tricks for dealing with side-effects. The latter would be optimistic but not because of the role of self as the agent of the outcome.

Without question there are some circumstances in which personal efficacy is the key determinant of a desired outcome. There are also cases in which the goal is explicitly to do something yourself. In the latter case, only a personally determined success is the desired end-point, so personal control is critical. However, there are also many cases in which the causal determinant of the outcome is far less important than the occurrence of the outcome (for broader discussion see Carver, Harris, et al., 2000). Those cases are also included within the optimism construct.

Another construct that resembles optimism, and which has its own substantial literature, is hope (Snyder, 1994, 2002). Hope is said to have two parts. One part is the person's perception of the existence of pathways that are needed for the person to reach his or her goals. The second is the person's level of confidence of being able to use those pathways to reach the goals. Thus, hope has been characterized (e.g., Snyder et al., 1991) as reflecting both the will (confidence) and the ways (pathways). The confidence dimension is similar to optimism, though with more overtones of personal agency. The pathway component is a quality that the optimism concept doesn't address. You can see, though, that a person who sees many pathways to a particular desired outcome may be especially likely to remain persistent if one particular pathway is blocked.

Finally, it has also been noted that pessimism has a considerable resemblance to the construct of neuroticism (Smith, Pope, Rhodewalt, & Poulton, 1989). Neuroticism (or emotional instability) is defined by a tendency to worry, to experience unpleasant emotions, and to be pessimistic. Smith et al. (1989) found that a commonly used measure of optimism related strongly to a measure of neuroticism, a finding also reported by Marshall and Lang (1990). Smith et al. also found that correlations between optimism and several outcome variables were sharply reduced when neuroticism was controlled. Scheier, Carver, and Bridges (1994) later found that the overlap between constructs was more limited, but noted that the existence of a relationship was unsurprising, inasmuch as part of neuroticism is a sense of pessimism.

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A second methodological issue concerns the fact that measures of optimism versus pessimism sometimes separate into two factors, one defined by positively framed items (e.g., "I'm always optimistic about my future"), the other defined by negatively framed items (e.g., "I hardly ever expect things to go my way"). It has been shown that the two subscales have somewhat different personality correlates (Marshall, Wortman, Kusulas, Hervig, & Vickers, 1992). Some studies (though not others) have found that one subscale is more important than the other in the prediction of relevant outcomes (Robinson-Whelen, Kim, MacCallum, & Kiecolt-Glaser, 1997), though which subscale is more important varies from study to study.

The question is what to make of this difference between the two subsets of items. Is this purely a methodological artifact, caused by the reverse phrasing of half the items, together with the general tendency toward agreeing in responding? Or does one item set provide a more valid measure of the underlying construct? When the item subsets have differed in their prediction, it generally (though not always) has been the negative items that predicted better. A summary recommendation is often that the subsets be examined separately, with results reported separately only if the two subsets of items behave differently.

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