Why pessimism is better than optimism – on a global scale – column
How’s this for a horror movie? A psychologist (scary already, isn’t it?) develops a questionnaire to tell who’s an optimist and who’s a pessimist. The test is designed to benefit humanity, just like the new genetically engineered bacteria. But it gets loose and falls into the hands of the insurance industry, which uses it to develop a task force of superoptimists, men and wo men who’ll never admit defeat, who always have a cute story ready, who believe deeply in the product, whatever it is.
Cut to a shapely young woman taking a shower. The doorbell rings.She wraps herself in a towel and goes to the screen door. The background music is all funny chords, sevenths and ninths in minor keys. At the door are four young men in identical blue suits, each with a strangely cheery look on his face. Crescendo. In unison they begin a pitch for life insurance. The woman screams and slams the door. The young men, still smiling, continue selling insurance.
Sure, you say, it would make a scary movie, but it’s like Alien,where the thing with the teeth pops out of the guy’s chest. It isn’t real; it’s just some writer’s nightmare. It could never happen in my town. Well, if that’s what you think, you might want to pick up Volume 50 of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology and read ”Explanatory Style as a Predictor of Productivity and Quitting Among Life Insurance Sales Agents,” by Martin E. P. Seligman and Peter Schulman of the University of Pennsylvania. There is such a test and it has fallen into the hands of the insurance industry.
What Seligman and Schulman did was to use the test (AttributionalStyle Questionnaire) on insurance sales agents for Metropolitan Life in Pennsylvania to find out whether they had what Seligman calls optimistic or pessimistic explanatory styles. The optimists sold more insurance and kept their jobs longer. The pessimists sold less, and presumably seeing that there was no hope of improvement for them and that it was a horrible job anyway, quit earlier. (Not that one can assume they thought they were going on to anything better.) And there’s indeed a task force, although it isn’t exactly as I described it. The real one is composed of people who failed the standard industry test used to pick insurance sales agents, but whom the ASQ pegged as optimists. At last report they were doing better than anyone else.
This is only one piece of research. There are quite a few others.In fact, optimism is very big these days, because it seems that it’s good for you. There’s evidence that in addition to selling more insurance, optimists live longer and their immune systems work better. Not only that, but some people, Seligman among them, have suggested that one may be able to change from pessimism to optimism. I wonder. How could a die-hard pessimist muster the initial optimism needed even to try to become more optimistic? Wouldn’t he say ”Oh, what’s the point? I’d never be able to change. I’m just a pessimist at heart.”?
The optimism business seems to have begun with giving electric shocks to dogs. These experiments, which are quite famous, showed that if the shocks were inescapable the animals learned this and just gave up. This so-called learned helplessness seemed to Seligman to be somewhat similar to human depression. I guess the idea was that some humans, for whatever reasons, appeared to regard life as a series of inescapable electric shocks (I can’t imagine why) and were lying down in their cages and giving up.
This perception led Seligman and others to consider, over a numberof years, the ways people explain bad things that happen to them, like electric shocks. In the current formulation, an optimist, when confronted with a personal failure like not selling an insurance policy, interprets this in external, specific, unstable (temporary) terms. He says, It’s not my fault; this particular customer was a jerk. The next one will be a sucker for sure. The pessimist interprets failure in internal, global, stable (permanent) terms. He says, It’s my fault, I’m an idiot, I’ve always been an idiot, I’ll always be an idiot. Oh God, there’s just no point in living. Of course, there are variations, cases that are hard to categorize. For instance, somebody could come up with an internal, global, temporary explanation: I’m an idiot; there’s no point in living today. Pessimists, since they tend to blame themselves for everything, are more likely to get depressed and give up when bad things happen to them. Optimists just whistle a happy tune and blame someone else.
What strikes me about the interest in optimism is that it is, in essence, a re-emergence of the Pelagian heresy, which I thought had been taken care of once and for all in 418 at the Council of Carthage. But these things never die. Other people, smarter than me (some of them anyway), have pointed out that science continually plunders the past for its paradigms. There are only so many ideas around, and they keep resurfacing with new paint jobs. In a sense all intellectual endeavor is nothing but one big chop shop, disassembling, repainting, and filing the serial numbers off old ideas — in this case the Pelagian heresy (a 1987 Nissan 300Z) and Augustinian orthodoxy (a 1936 Rolls-Royce Phantom).
I realize that not everyone has kept up with the doctrinal twists and turns of early medieval Roman Catholicism, so let me explain. The Augustinians (following St. Augustine) pessimistically believed, and still do, that each human being is born blotched with original sin and can be redeemed only by God’s grace. This view is often expressed in the liturgical lament, mea saurus, mea saurus, mea maxima saurus.* The Pelagians saw the belief in original sin as having to do with low self-esteem. (They were way ahead of their time. Of course, they lived in the fifth century, when it was hard not to be ahead of your time.) They said: Hey! I’m O.K., you’re O.K.; if we just work hard and do good we can get to heaven on our own — whether God likes us or not. You can im agine how this infuriated the Augustinians.
Intellectual positions become transformed over time, and today the issue isn’t salvation but atherosclerosis. True Pelagianism has been transformed, not so much into optimism itself as into the medical and psychological belief that, if you’re optimistic, you can, in worldly terms, save yourself — meta-optimism.
The original Pelagians didn’t fare well. They were branded heretics, which was, in those days, like having the National Science Foundation cut off your funding. Obviously the early bishops, and Pope Zosimus, who confirmed and validated the verdict of the Council of Carthage, felt there was some danger to the bright, happy, Pelagian approach to life, or afterlife. If so, I’ve finally found some common ground with Pope Zosimus. I don’t doubt that optimism does wonders for the optimists themselves. The question I haven’t yet seen addressed and want the answer to is this: What does optimism do for, and to, the rest of us? Instead of thinking about the salesmen, let’s think about the customers.
Who in his right mind likes a cheery, cocksure life insurancesalesman? You might as well talk to a Mormon missionary. I know this seems like a gratuitous use of Mormonism, but it’s not. You see, the Mormons have a history of optimism. Joseph Smith himself is an example of the most monumental optimism (or chutzpah, perhaps, except the word seems out of place in this context). Here was a guy who thought — in the nineteenth century — that he could start a brand new, giant religion from scratch. And he succeeded. That’s the scary part about optimists: they tend to succeed. And that means that the more of them there are out there selling life insurance, the more life insurance the rest of us are going to have to buy.
One can’t fail to note that Seligman didn’t study shoe salesmen. Presumably this is because selling shoes isn’t that stressful. One doesn’t need to be an optimist to sell shoes. Why? Because people need shoes. They want shoes. They like shoes — wing tips, high tops, sandals, Hush Puppies, shoes are very popular. If you want to sell them you don’t have to abuse your alumni directory and send out a bunch of form letters that start, ”Dear classmate: Now that you’re a father and provider it’s time you began thinking about shoes.” No. Shoe salesmen just sit in their stores and wait. They may wonder why their lives are spent handling other people’s feet, but t hey’re at least secure in the knowledge that as long as other people have those feet, shoe salesmen (optimists and pessimists alike) will make a living.
My feeling is that if insurance were all that great, you wouldn’t have to be an optimist to sell it. Maybe insurance isn’t all that great, not as great as shoes anyway. And maybe optimism isn’t so great either. Maybe pessimists are better for the general weal. Sure they’re lousy life insurance salesmen, but so what? And balanced against this small failing is a profoundly beneficial quality that all pessimists share. They tend not to do much. Nowadays pretty much everything that gets done is bad, so pessimists are continually performing what you might call, to fuse once and for all the Judaic and Christian religious traditions, mitzvahs of omission.
Say there’s some covert action to be undertaken, like the destabilization of the Southern Hemisphere. The bigwigs are always looking for ”can do” people. What if they could only find ”can’t do” people? ”No,” the can’t-do’s would say, when you asked them to assassinate a foreign head of state. ”That’ll never work. The poison will fail, the gun will jam, plus, I can’t keep a secret.” A pessimistic president, when things went wrong, would tend to blame himself, which would be refreshing. It also might make him try to avoid things that might go wrong in a big way, like wars. And if we could only elect a dour, pessimistic Congress, I’m sure it would refuse to fund nuclear weapons. The representatives and senators would realize, as human beings themselves, that, with the exception of those of us who are actually crooked, we’re a race of fools, lunatics, and insurance salesmen, and sooner or later somebody in one category or another is going to set the bombs off.
Pessimism: it’s our only hope for the future.*Loosely, ”I’m a lizard, I’m a lizard, I’m an enormous lizard.”
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