Optimism: Theoretical Conceptions to Explore Individual Differences

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About this sample

About this sample


Words: 1274 |

Pages: 3|

7 min read

Published: Aug 14, 2023

Words: 1274|Pages: 3|7 min read

Published: Aug 14, 2023

Table of contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Theoretical Conceptions of Optimism
  3. Learned optimism
    Dispositional optimism
  4. Conclusion
  5. References


Optimism derives from the Latin word optimum, meaning ‘best’ and is considered a mental state where individuals look at more positive and favourable aspect of situations and anticipate them. Conversano et al (2010) suggests it encompasses the propensity to hope and to believe that things will work out. Contrary to optimism is pessimism which is the tendency to anticipate negative or undesirable outcomes. A widely used phase for explaining optimists and pessimists is how they view the half-filled glass. A pessimist would consider the glass half empty and an optimist would consider it half full. Optimism and pessimism are both traits that can be found in anyone and is not subject to an individual however may be influenced by factors such as individuals’ disposition and traits; they are a continuum. The topic of optimism has brought forth many theoretical concepts into explaining why some show aspect of this such as learned optimism, dispositional optimism and hope. This essay about optimism will look at these three theoretical conceptions to explore the individual differences within optimism.

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Theoretical Conceptions of Optimism

Learned optimism

Seligman developed the conception of learned optimism through the attributional reformulation of the learned helplessness model (Seligman et al, 1978). According to Seligman, learned helplessness occurs when people learn to be helpless as they find themselves in overwhelming situations and feel like nothing they can do will make a difference. How people attribute what occurs in their life may be caused by internal or external factors which contribute to them either experiencing this helplessness or not. He proposes three attributes for the occurrence of learned helplessness which involve internal (themselves), stable (it will last forever) and global (it will affect everything) factors in explaining their failures. How people handle their successes and failures influences their lives. Seligman uses aspects of Ellis’s model in explaining how one can achieve optimism through the ABC model. A is adversity which involves forming beliefs about the situation/adversity one experiences. B is belief and how individuals interpret the adversity and finally C is the consequences the beliefs have on the individual and the result of how the individual may feel, how they may behave or response. Individuals explanatory style are how they get from A to B, which influences people’s optimistic thinking. Rotters’ (1966) locus of control phenomenon supports the learned helplessness theory. People with internal locus of control show control over what happened and those with external locus of control explain situations occurring outside self-influences and show no control over it (Macsinga & Nemeti, 2012). Although, learned optimism can account for individuals developing optimistic thinking, Seligman suggests that it may be easier to become pessimistic than optimistic (Seligman, 1998). But while it might not be as easy to be optimistic than helpless, it is possible and can be done.

Dispositional optimism

Sometimes other factors such as disposition can influence individuals becoming optimistic. Michael Scheier and Charles Carver (1992) proposed dispositional optimism. This the tendency to expect favourable outcomes. This explanation is drawn from the idea of personality/traits and genetics influencing individual’s susceptibility to optimism. Research from Scheier and Carver, 1985 show that the genetic heritability of dispositional optimism is around 33% across the population and this therefore shows support for a genetic prevalence within optimism although the rest can be attributed to the environment and situations (Segerstrom et al 1998). However, dispositional optimism does not explain other influences that result in optimism such as their environment. Segerstrom et al 1998 proposes that situational optimism is also influences people in their optimistic thinking and that they have better mental health than dispositional optimist. This may be because situational optimist are more specific in their positive viewpoints an expect good things to happen to specific areas. However, this is a relative new area of research within optimism that requires more revision.


Furthermore, hope is another theoretical conception of optimism and was developed by Synder 1994. Hope is an individual’s expectation that goals will be achieved. Synder emphasizes that people make plans or pathways in order to achieve the goals they have set out for themselves through three components which are agency, the pathway and the goal. First the goal is what individuals want to happen, this includes mental targets; the second aspect is agency which refers to how much motivation the individual has to enable them to reach the goal; finally the pathway signifies how the individual will get there and meet the goal. Synder 2002, has also shown explanations of low hope and high hope people which essentially produce different outcomes. Individuals with low hope often present only one goal which is usually ambiguous whereas individuals with high hope set multiple goals (approximately 6 according to Synder). This allows for people with high hope not to essentially feel down if one goal is not met as they have others to attain and are therefore better at finding different pathways. This is supported by many researchers such as McDermott and Snyder, 1999; Snyder et al., 2002 who found that high hopes individuals did better academically and athletically. Likewise, mental health, with high hope individuals showing high self-esteem and low hope individuals showing depression (e.g. Snyder, 2000; 2002). However high hope may result in false hope syndrome which may affect how people cope in different situations.


Research within the field of optimism shows that individual differences influence optimistic thinking. Dispositional optimism suggests that optimism has genetic influences, but situational optimism suggests that assigning positive thinking on a situation basis lead to better mental health. Furthermore, research has shown low and high hope influence optimistic thinking. This therefore provides a broad explanation into optimism though certain aspects need more revision due to the limited evidence. Overall, individual differences do account for optimistic thinking and this has been shown by positive psychology however, where optimism comes from is still not clear. Furthermore Peterson 2000 suggests that optimism shouldn’t only be considered as a cognitive characteristic but rather how we should live and that other influences such as motivation and emotion may influence, and they should be regarded together.  


  1. Conversano, C., Rotondo, A., Lensi, E., Della Vista, O., Arpone, F., & Reda, M. A. (2010). Optimism and its impact on mental and physical well-being. Clinical Practice and Epidemiology in Mental Health, 6, 25-29.

  2. Seligman, M. E., Maier, S. F., & Geer, J. H. (1968). Alleviation of learned helplessness in the dog. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 73(3), 256-262.

  3. Seligman, M. E. (1998). Learned optimism: How to change your mind and your life. Vintage.

  4. Rotter, J. B. (1966). Generalized expectancies for internal versus external control of reinforcement. Psychological Monographs: General and Applied, 80(1), 1-28.

  5. Scheier, M. F., & Carver, C. S. (1992). Effects of optimism on psychological and physical well-being: Theoretical overview and empirical update. Cognitive therapy and research, 16(2), 201-228.

  6. Segerstrom, S. C., Taylor, S. E., Kemeny, M. E., & Fahey, J. L. (1998). Optimism is associated with mood, coping, and immune change in response to stress. Journal of personality and social psychology, 74(6), 1646-1655.

  7. Snyder, C. R. (1994). The psychology of hope: You can get there from here. Simon and Schuster.

  8. Snyder, C. R., Harris, C., Anderson, J. R., Holleran, S. A., Irving, L. M., Sigmon, S. T., ... & Harney, P. (1991). The will and the ways: Development and validation of an individual-differences measure of hope. Journal of personality and social psychology, 60(4), 570-585.

  9. McDermott, D. R., & Snyder, C. R. (1999). Hope and optimismaomg: Conceptual and empirical connections. Journal of social and clinical psychology, 18(2), 121-137.

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  10. Snyder, C. R., Irving, L. M., & Anderson, J. R. (1991). Hope and health: Measuring the will and the ways. In C. R. Snyder & D. R. Forsyth (Eds.), Handbook of social and clinical psychology: The health perspective (pp. 285-305). Pergamon Press.

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Optimism: Theoretical Conceptions to Explore Individual Differences. (2023, August 14). GradesFixer. Retrieved April 13, 2024, from
“Optimism: Theoretical Conceptions to Explore Individual Differences.” GradesFixer, 14 Aug. 2023,
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