Motivation and emotion/Tutorials/Learned optimism

Tutorial 06: Learned optimism

Resource type: this resource contains a tutorial or tutorial notes.

This is the sixth tutorial for the motivation and emotion unit of study.


  1. Explores learned optimism (the opposite of learned helplessness).
  2. Last motivation tutorial - following tutorials focus on emotion.

Learned optimismEdit

Figure 1. Shuttle box used by Seligman to experiment with learned helplessness in dogs.

This exercise explores learned optimism which relates to personal control beliefs in Chapter 10 of Reeve (2018) and the mindsets, control, and the self lecture. Whilst the textbook and lecture focus on learned helplessness, here attention is turned to learned optimism.


Define and discuss learned helplessness vs. learned optimism.

  • What characterises learned helplessness?
  • What characterises learned optimism?

Hardware vs. softwareEdit

A computer metaphor:

  • The body and brain provide the "hardware".
  • Thinking is the "software".
  • Software can be reprogrammed.
  • This is the view, at least, of cognitive psychology.

Martin SeligmanEdit

The learned helplessness and learned optimism concepts were developed by Martin Seligman, University of Pennsylvania. Seligman started with research about learned helplessness and has then applied this to learning optimism and positive psychology more generally. Three key books in this respect are:

  • Helplessness: On depression, development, and death (Seligman, 1975)
  • Learned optimism: How to change your mind and your life (Seligman, 1990)
  • The hope circuit: A psychologist's journal helplessness to optimism (Seligman, 2018)

Learned Optimism TestEdit

  1. Complete the Learned Optimism Test (48 items; 10 - 15 mins; modified from Seligman, 1991).
  2. "Right" answers are more optimistic; "wrong" answers are more pessimistic
  3. Keep your answers up on the screen; note the total
  4. Explain the theoretical structure - see dimensions
  5. View and discuss the results.


The Learned Optimism Test is structured around six dimensions, based on three types of attributions about two types of events:

  • Permanence (Good and Bad)
  • Pervasiveness (Good and Bad)
  • Personalisation (Good and Bad)

Table 1.

Attributional Dimensions of Pessimism and Optimism

Attribution Bad Good
Permanence PmB PmG
Pervasiveness PvB PvG
Personalisation PsB PsG
Total ToB ToG

Table 2.

Explanatory Styles Based on Attributional Dimensions of Pessimism and Optimism

Optimistic Pessimistic
Good event Permanent






Bad event Temporary







Time: Temporary vs. Permanent - a pessimistic view is that bad events are permanent and good events are temporary (opposite for optimism)

  • PmB (Permanent Bad)
  • PmG (Permanent Good)


Space: Specific vs. Universal - across situations/domains: a pessimistic view is that bad events are pervasive across situations/domains and good events are specific to a situation/domain (opposite for optimism)

  • PvB (Pervasive Bad)
  • PvG (Pervasive Good)


Control/causality: Internal vs. External: e.g., a pessimistic view is that bad events are internally caused and good events are externally causes (opposite for optimism)

  • PsB (Personalisation Bad)
  • PsG (Personalisation Good)


Assuming optimistic responses are scored positively.

  • Hope (HoB) = PvB + PmB (i.e., Hope for Bad Events).
  • Seligman indicates that this is the single most important score.
Total BadEdit
  • Total B (Bad) = PmB + PvB + PsB
Total GoodEdit
  • Total G (Good) = PmG + PvG + PsG
  • Overall Optimism = Total G + Total B

ABCDE solutionEdit

Would you like to become more optimistic?

If so, Seligman suggests a cognitive ABCDE solution:

Table 3.

How to Change Pessimistic Thinking Styles

A Adversity When we encounter adversity, we react by thinking about it.
B Beliefs Our thoughts rapidly congeal into beliefs.
C Consequences These beliefs ... have consequences
D Disputation We find evidence against the negative beliefs, alternatives to our negative reasoning, and limit the implication of the beliefs. Seligman writes that "Much of the skill of dealing with setbacks ... consists of learning how to dispute your own first thoughts in reaction to a setback."
E Energisation We feel energised after we've disputed our false, negative beliefs.

Is optimism always good?Edit

There are well established positive relationships between optimism and important life outcomes such as physical health (e.g., longevity) and psychological well-being.

But is optimism always good? For example:

  • Narcissism - Believing that one is all-powerful and influential can contribute to inflated self-importance (i.e., narcissism)
  • Risk-taking - Believing that one can control good outcomes (when you actually can't) can be problematic (e.g., gambling)

Despite these potential problems, the advantages of optimism are overwhelming. So much so, that the psychologically healthiest people tend to have "positive illusions", that is, somewhat unrealistically positive views, whereas "realists" are more prone to depression.


Seligman, M. E. P. (1975). Helplessness: On depression, development, and death. W H Freeman/Times Books/ Henry Holt & Co.

Seligman, M. E. P. (2006). Learned optimism: How to change your mind and your life. Vintage Books.

Seligman, M. E. (2018). The hope circuit: A psychologist's journey from helplessness to optimism. Penguin Random House Australia.


See alsoEdit

Additional tutorial material
Book chapters

External linksEdit