Friday, June 03, 2005


It seems that optimism was an important if not deciding factor in the outcome of the 2004 elections. Voters liked Bush better than Kerry probably because of his positive, optimistic attitude. Liberals tend to be realistic and eschew optimism to their peril

The 2005 Political Typology developed by the Pew Reserach Center examines the role that optimism played in the 2004 election and concludes that:

* Voters inclined toward the Republican Party are distinguished from Democrats by their personal optimism and belief in the power of the individual. (pg 2)
* Poorer Republicans and Democrats differ in their levels of optimism. Pro Government Conservatives (poorer Republicans in the typology) are optimistic and positive and Disadvantaged Democrats are pessimistic and cynical. (pg 5)
* The relatively moderate voters who have a positive view of their financial situation and the state of the nation in general ( the Upbeats in the typology) came out for Bush by more than four to one even though they have not usually formally identifyied themselves with either political party (pg 3)
* George Bush had the broadest personal appeal of any national political figure among the main independent groups, the Upbeats and the Dissafected.

Political Rhetoric; Clinton and Obama:

In his successful election campaign Clinton called himself the Man from Hope. The very successful Barak Obama bases his platform on optimism:

Thank you for believing…it is your abiding faith in the possibilities of this nation that make America a beacon of hope and freedom around the world

Hope--the hope that we hold in our hearts for our future, the faith we share in our dreams, the timeless conviction that in a nation of freedom and opportunity, anything is possible

Barak is as liberal as we can hope a Democratic Senator to be, yet to the liberal ear, this sort of optimism grates the sense of reality which seems to overwhelm the liberal mind. Liberals who are the fasted growing group of the Pew typology and are describes as lowest in participation in religious activities, seem to equate optimism with religiosity.

The Power of Positive Thinking.

Remember how appalled the intelligentsia was when The Power of of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale became a world wide fad? The book, which sold around 20 million copies in 42 languages is written in the language of simple church-going folk in the 1950s and was misread to simply imply that a happy smile can overcome all obstacles. But Peale took serioously the pain, difficulty and struggle of human existence, and for him there was no greater source of personal power to counteract that pain than the example provided by the Gothic tales of the Bible. He can be said to be a founding father of the human potential movement within which the notion that everyone creates their own reality was a dictum. That concept, say what you will, has enormous appeal because it empowers the individual and while we liberals sneer at it, we do it at our peril. The fact is that optimism and individual empowerment, quite separate from religiosity, are powerful tools. The arbitrary link of optimism with religion is being successfully exploited in today’s electoral politics; liberals eschew optimism and the Republicans make us pay for it.

Martin Selignman's Positive Psychology.

Martin Seligman PhD, is a prestigious psychologist, past president of the APA, recipient of multiple awards and the leading proponent of positive psychology a new, and to some shocking, recent direction in the field.

Says Seligman, based on his extensive research on optimism and hope.: "If you are a pessimist in the sense that when bad things happen you think they are going to last forever and undermine everything you do, then you are about eight times as likely to get depressed, you are less likely to succeed at work, your personal relationships are more likely to break up, and you are likely to have a shorter and more illness-filled life. That's the main discovery that I associate with my lifetime."

"In our research on the roles of optimism and pessimism we tested 15,000 applicants for life insurance sales, a difficult job with frequent rejection and a high drop-out rate. We measured, by questionnaire, the explanatory style (a metric of optimism and pessimism) of the regular qualified people who were hired. Also included was a special force of 129 people who failed the industry test - who wouldn't normally have been hired - but who tested very well on optimism."

"First, within the regular qualified group that was hired, the optimists significantly outsold the pessimists. Second, the special force of optimists who failed the industry test outsold everyone. In another study, when subjects were given a lower grade in a class or a slower recorded time in an athletic event, thereby simulating defeat, the optimists rose to the occasion and did better the second time around while the pessimists did worse."

In 1988, Seligman and Harold Zullow content-analyzed the speeches of 33 senatorial races for optimism or pessimism and sent their predictions in sealed envelopes to the New York Times. By choosing the most optimistic candidates as the winners, they were able to predict 25 of 29 races, including five out of six upsets. They did better than any other forecaster. This research may be behind the Clinton and Barak campaign themes though there is no doubt that both of them are truly optimistic and hopeful in their attitudes.

People prone to despair have a pessimistic explanatory style marked by brutal honesty. They are in Seligman's words, "at the mercy of reality," a characteristic than can be said to be shared with liberals in the Pew typology.

Transactional Analysis and Optimism.

In Transactional Analysis the much maligned and little understood OK/OK existential position was made famous by Tom Harris who, with his book I'm OK Youre OK outdid Eric Berne's two year best seller Games People Play. The OK?OK position is called the "universal position" because Berne assumed that "people are born OK" that is to say that people, in their innate state tend to health, healing, and a benign expectation and trust of others.

It has been shown through hundreds of studies that human beings strongly tend to be positive in their language, thought, and memory and that people who are psychologically healthy show a higher level of positive bias. The research also indicates that people with an OK/OK attitude are likely to be healthier and live longer. It has been postulated that optimism has driven human evolution and is an innate, adaptive survival mechanisms of the species, a view that coincides with Berne's. The age-long notion--Vis Medicatrix Naturae; Nature's Healing Hand--reflects the fact that we are genetically programmed for self-healing and nurturance.

When lost, according to Berne, the OK position can be regained as it is innate while the not OK position is tied to an acquired "life script" an arbitrary narrative or schema decided upon early in life, on which people tend to base the rest of their lives; in other words the pessimistic position or attitude is optional and can be redecided if we put our minds to it. Is the glass half full or half empty? This question turns out to be an important indication of human destiny. Evidence over the last centuries is that the human social condition-- barring an ecological catastrophe--is steadily progressing in the positive direction of equality, cooperation, democracy and humanitarianism which would tend to support the view that this is an innate trend of the species.

Optimism, Realism, Pessimism and the Religious Feeling.

Is it possible to be realistic and optimistic at the same time? Is it possible to be optimistic and not religious? It does not seem to the liberal mentality to be possible. Realistically it seems, we are going to hell in a handbasket. Yet realism, even if it leads to dire predictions through statistical methodology does not necessarily mandate a pessimistic attitude. Nor does an optimistic attitude or religiosity necessarily denote an unrealistic approach. Realism and attitude about the future are not necessarily tied together and are in fact aspect of different portions of the brain.

Realism, a product of the frontal lobe, makes predictions which in the case of complex systems like economics, the weather and health are variable in their accuracy especially if they are projected far into the future. Optimism, pessimism as well as the religious feeling which are emotional in nature are functions of the limbic brain. Even though connected through neural pathways these two portions of the brain tend not to relate to each other though they are fully capable of developing a neural connection.

Jimmy Carter learned the hard way how being realistic and speaking of malaise can get you unelected. George Bush has been groomed otherwise. His message is unrelentingly optimistic and was much preferred to Kerry's realistic stance. One clear outcome of the elections was that Bush with all of his studied ignorance, arrogance, malaprops and untruths was far more popular than Kerry. I attribute this to a wholly manufactured polarity of optimism and negativity between the candidates which was combined with a superb use of the effect of positive attitudes on the electorate, to make Kerry the less likeable candidate.

As an example on the crucial issue of the war, Bush's unwavering attitude was (and still is) "We did the right thing, it was a good thing, we are winning we are going to succeed." Kerry's message: "Wrong war, at the wrong time, for the wrong reasons, catastrophe, mistake” was music to my liberal ears but had a hidden component of pessimism that threw voters sympathies to Bush.

One truly gruesome consequence of the realism, pessimism confusion is the oft experienced liberal glee—duly noted by Republicans--as a reaction to dreadful news of deaths in Iraq; a sort of desperate clinging to bad news as a way to prove ourselves right. Should it not be possible to sadly say “this is as was predicted” instead of feeling the pleasure of vindication? How f-----d up is that? Go figure…

What are we to do?

The joke goes: Martin Luther's history-making speech was "I have a dream" not "I have a complaint."

It seems that pessimism and cynicism are optional attitudes and not necessary even for those who are realists and not inclined to religious beliefs. So for those of us who are compelled to be pessimists by our make-up or background and want to get on the same page with the electorate, the word, albeit glib, is "Get over it."

Claude Steiner

1 comment:

Pau Cortes Font de Rubinat said...

Quite an interesting essay, that prompts me to think of a few statements. The first is Seligman's quote:
"If you are a pessimist in the sense that when bad things happen you think they are going to last forever and undermine everything you do, then you are about eight times as likely to get depressed, you are less likely to succeed at work, your personal relationships are more likely to break up, and you are likely to have a shorter and more illness-filled life. That's the main discovery that I associate with my lifetime."
It makes me wonder, about the egg and the chicken. Is depression a result of negative experiences or is, as often mentioned today, a sickness? It is obvious to me that a depressive personality does not certainly make for a winner. The neurological mechanisms of depression have been studied and described, but the cause remains to be clarified.
It is perfectly credible and according to logics, that a pessimistic personality can hardly transmit enthusiasm for a cause, nor be much enthused by it.
Now, about reality and pessimism, this is a difficult point to digest. As you well say, realistically, "we are going to hell in a handbasket", unless we assume the religious solution. All the deep knowledge that we can gain about ourselves and our history, tells us that all these "magnificent" mechanisms and systems that evolution has developed for us, have but one goal: survival of the individual and the species. And we know that it is a lost battle.
Is this a reason to become pessimistic? I agree with you that it is possible to be realistic and optimistic simultaneously. And yes, it is very difficult if you are not a conservative full of self importance and convinced of your own trascendence. But if you realize what being like this or not really means, it becomes much simpler.
A usual I got off the topic.