When I arrived home for the holidays, I rifled through my bookcase looking for a good read. I stumbled upon a book I had purchased for a psychology class in college, “Learned Optimism,” by Martin Seligman, Ph.D.
A professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and past president of the American Psychological Association, Seligman describes a number of scientific experiments and groundbreaking theories in this book. But there were two ideas that resonated with me, and that I believe can be applied to the work we do in social marketing:
1. Optimism is integral to overcoming barriers to success.
Seligman posits that how an individual thinks about and explains an event (one’s explanatory style) strongly influences his reaction to that event. Seligman explains that while a pessimistic explanatory style can produce depression in response to everyday setbacks, an optimistic explanatory style can produce resilience in the face of tragedy. While this may sound obvious to cognitive behavioral therapists, even they may be surprised by how strongly optimism correlates with overcoming adversity and barriers to success.
By examining how individuals think about and explain good and bad events, Seligman was able to:
- Help insurance companies recruit persistent salespeople who could outsell their peers;
- Assist coaches in identifying baseball players who could perform under late-inning pressure; and
- Predict Senate seat winners with unprecedented accuracy.
What did winning salespeople, baseball players, and Senate candidates all have in common? They were all optimists.
2. Optimism can be learned.
Even those who instinctively lean towards pessimistic explanatory styles can learn to be optimists. Seligman offers a host of tactics to help individuals think about obstacles differently, empowering them to react to stumbling blocks in life more positively and bounce back from larger obstacles more quickly than before. One technique Seligman recommends is that pessimists learn to argue with themselves, offering evidence that disputes negative beliefs that lead to negative actions. For example, if Jane believes that she is a failure because she had one cigarette after pledging to quit, she can contradict this belief by reminding herself of the many ways in which she is a success—she was just promoted at her job, has a great relationship with her kids, and is happily married. By thinking about herself in this new and different way, Jane is more likely to reinvigorate her commitment to quitting than give into temptation the next time she craves a cigarette.
What are the implications for social marketers?
I believe that optimism can play a powerful role in driving behavior change. When designing interventions, we often think about how to mitigate barriers to action, like cost, inconvenience, and accessibility. But could pessimism be a barrier that has slipped under our radar? Can we leverage optimism where it exists and foster it where it doesn’t? What implications do you think this has for the way we target audiences, identify influencers, develop messaging, or create materials?