The concepts of optimism and pessimism concern people's expectations for the future. These concepts
have ties to centuries of folk wisdom and also to a class of psychological theories of motivation, called expectancy-value theories. Such
theories suggest a logical basis for some of the ways in which optimism and pessimism influence people's behavior and emotions.
Expectancy-value models begin with the idea
that behavior is aimed at attaining desired goals (Carver
& Scheier, 1998).
Goals are actions, end-states, or values
that people see as being either desirable or undesirable.
People try to fit their behavior to what they see as desirable.
They try to stay away from what they see as undesirable. According
to this theoretical orientation, unless there is a valued
goal, no action occurs. The other core concept is expectancies:
a sense of confidence or doubt about attaining the goal. If
a person lacks confidence, again there is no action. Only
if they have enough confidence do people engage (and remain
engaged) in goal-directed effort. These ideas apply to specific
values and focused confidence; they also apply to optimism
and pessimism (Scheier,
Carver, & Bridges, 2001). In the latter case, the
sense of "confidence" versus doubt is simply broader in its
From these principles come many predictions about optimists
and pessimists. When confronting a challenge, optimists should
be confident and persistent, even if progress is difficult
and slow. Pessimists should be more doubtful and hesitant.
Adversity should even exaggerate this difference. Optimists
believe adversity can be handled successfully, pessimists
expect disaster. This can lead to differences in such domains
as actions relating to health risks, taking precautions in
risky circumstances, and persistence in trying to overcome
health threats. It can also lead to differences in what coping
responses people deploy when confronting a threat such as
a cancer diagnosis (Carver
et al., 1993; Stanton
& Snider, 1993).
Behavioral responses are important, but behavior is not the
only response when people confront adversity. People also
experience emotions in such situations. Difficulties elicit
many feelings, feelings reflecting both distress and challenge.
The balance among such feelings differs between optimists
and pessimists. Because optimists expect good outcomes,
they are likely to experience a more positive mix of feelings.
Because pessimists expect bad outcomes, they
should experience more negative feelings-anxiety, sadness,
and despair. A good deal of research has found evidence of
such emotional differences (see Scheier
et al., 2001).
There is even evidence linking pessimism to cancer survival
et al., 1996), though
the reason for the association is far from clear. Patients
diagnosed with recurrent cancer were followed for 8 months,
by which time approximately one-third had died. Earlier all
had completed a measure of pessimism. Controlling for site
of cancer and symptoms at baseline, persons with a pessimistic
orientation were less likely to be alive at the 8-month follow-up.