Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Hope, part II

I promised some information on the question of whether being pessimistic (or at least moderating optimism) makes a negative outcome easier to bear (reduces disappointment). It's a complicated and fascinating picture, so settle in. And no fucking around on facebook while I'm lecturing, please.

First of all, how do psychologists measure the effects of disappointment? Well, they look both at ratings on various measures of mood (e.g., a depression questionnaire) as well as immunological factors (e.g., t cell count, cortisol). So when I say x is better than y, I mean x results in higher ratings of mood and lower levels of stress hormones and that kind of thing. Caveats: I'll provide one source that I think will be maximally valuable, but won't document every claim since I don't to attract a flock of critical psychologists. While I do have a PhD in psychology, this stuff is not my area of expertise. This post is simply my picture of the research area, and should be taken with a grain of salt. Okay. Here are some generalizations that might be of interest.
  • It matters whether you are a dispositional  optimist (someone who generally expects a positive future) as opposed to a situational optimist (someone who has positive expectations about a particular event). Dispositional optimism does seem to protect you from some of the negative effects of disappointment. It seems that optimists just aren't as distressed by the failure of their positive expectations as pessimists are. Weird.
  • Whether the stress (in our case, IF) is brief or prolonged also makes a big difference. When stress is prolonged (more than one week), pessimism is more protective. This might be because optimists tend to give up after repeated failure, while pessimists engage (attempt to find solutions). If that's the case, it's engagement that matters, not necessarily optimism. 
  • So what about those of us who are not optimistic by nature? Can positive expectations about a particular event lead to better immune response? There is some reason to think so in a study of law students. Anyone still awake at this point? Hang in there--I'm getting to some cool stuff! Those who had positive expectations about performance fared better even if they were not dispositional optimists...but who cares about law students. In a study on coping with IVF failure, dispositional optimists adapted better to the failure, even though their specific expectations about getting pregnant were similar to those of the less optimistic women (p. 182). In other words, if, prior to IVF, an optimist and a pessimist both put their chances of getting pregnant eventually (not necessarily from that specific transfer) at 70%, the optimist will fare better if the procedure fails. So this suggests simply having positive expectations about a particular event may not do much good. Bad news for me.
  • There are a ton of other variables that complicate the picture: perception of having control, depression, etc. One study suggests optimism can partly be reduced to conscientiousness. That is, it's not about positive expectations, it's about continuing to act to achieve a goal. In general, the story seems to be that engagement = good and withdrawal = bad. No shit, huh?
  • The IVF study suggests a few other interesting things. Feeling responsible for IF is not necessarily bad! However, feeling responsible for an IVF failure (and I'm betting an IUI failure, a miscarriage) is definitely bad. A feeling of loss of control is bad. And using escape (that is, not dealing with IF) as a coping mechanism = bad.
So...to hope or not to hope? It seems it's better to hope, provided you're not just mindlessly hoping. What really seems to do the job is hope + engagement. That's something even a pessimist can manage. Here endeth the lesson.


  1. Oh, that is interesting.

    Are we born one way or the other? Or is it possible to train yourself to become optimistic, I wonder? Presuming you'd want to, which I suppose is part of the state of hopefulness itself. I mean - part of being a pessimist is probably believing that is the natural way to be?

    Yeah. No need to answer these questions! You are not at work, after all. Take the night off. (ha).

  2. Interesting for sure. I don't feel so bad being slightly pessimistic (realistic) and hopeful. Hope + engagement is dooable!

  3. point taken. I shall be hopeful and certainly engaged.

  4. I like the thought about hope + engagement. I am the type that sets myself up for disappointment so I'm either really happy for success or not shocked by failure. I do understand your points, though, and definitely there is a lot to say for positive thinking. Working on it!

  5. Great post! I feel like I used to be a dispositional optimist, but the repeated failures have turned me into something just short of a pessimist. I would say a realist, but I don't know that I necessarily have the firmest grip on reality.
    Hopeful and engaged sounds do-able, though!

  6. I say, turn to the bottle and all will seem fine. Ha. Or, lobotomy should do the trick.