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The Psychology of Optimism vs. Pessimism

Are you more of a glass half-empty or glass half-full type of person? If life gives you lemons, do you make lemonade or assume that someone will eventually come and take those lemons from you?  Does every cloud have a silver lining, or do clouds just act as a big Eeyore gloom over your head?

All of these positions help to answer a very popular personal question – are you an more of an optimist or a pessimist? Essentially, do you expect a negative or a positive future? Virtually everyone in the world can be separated into one of the two camps (this may be a vast oversimplification, but let’s assume that’s true).Biologically speaking, our wellness and survival require a healthy balance between optimism and pessimism. Too much optimism can lead to dangerously risky behavior, but an overdose of pessimism makes life miserable.


Optimism & Pessimism Functions in our Brain

Neuropsychologists predominantly agree that optimism and pessimism are differentially associated with the two cerebral hemispheres. A review and synthesis of the literature on these two worldviews suggests that “high self-esteem, a cheerful attitude that tends to look at the positive aspects of a given situation, as well as an optimistic belief in a bright future are associated with physiological activity in the left-hemisphere (LH) while a gloomy viewpoint, an inclination to focus on the negative part and exaggerate its significance, low self-esteem as well as a pessimistic view on what the future holds are interlinked with neurophysiological processes in the right-hemisphere (RH).”

In a split visual-field study, word pairs were presented to participants, each containing one positive and one negative word (eg. “success” and “poverty”). When the negative word appeared on the left visual-field (LVF) and the positive word on the right visual-field (RVF), participants' attention shifted significantly toward the positive word in the RVF. However, when the direction was reversed, so that the positive word appeared on the LVF and the negative word on the RVF, participants attended equally to both visual fields. Since the left hemisphere handles stimuli in the RVF, it can be concluded that the LH is preferentially attuned to positive information and therefore shifts one's attention towards it.

Every human depends on both the right and left hemispheres of the brain to function. However, they both mediate different ways of seeing and dealing with the world. The right hemisphere mediation of a “watchful and inhibitive mode weaves a sense of insecurity that generates and supports pessimistic thought patterns.” The left hemisphere mediation of an active mode and the “positive feedback it receives through its motor dexterity breed a sense of confidence in one's ability to manage life's challenges, and optimism about the future.”

According to Dr. David Hecht of the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, the differences in the way each hemisphere experiences the world comes down to three perceptual modes. 1) Selective attention and information processing, 2) a belief (or lack thereof) that one has power to influence relevant situations, events and relationships (i.e. locus of control), and 3) the general way in which one interprets personal events (i.e. attribution style).

Selective information processing really just boils down to the glass half-full or -empty dichotomy. An optimist will select the positive and invigorating cues from the outside world, and ignore the negative and discouraging cues, while a pessimist will do the opposite. This has been indicated in numerous eye-tracking studies where largely optimistic people look at negative images less than largely pessimistic people. This is also connected to the split-visual field study mentioned previously.



In many ways, one’s general attitude is determined by the extent to which they believe they have the power to control the situation they find themselves in (i.e. locus-of-control). Those who see themselves as masters of their own destinies are much more likely to hold a positive view of the world, while those that maintain a more passive view of their own agency, and see everything that happens to them as a matter of good luck, bad luck, or chance, are more likely to hold a negative view of the world at large. Comparisons between epileptic patients whose seizures originate from a sudden electrical discharge in their RH and those with LH epileptic foci, revealed that the latter group tended more to think of themselves as passive agents, suggesting that there’s a link between the left hemisphere and optimism.

Finally, attribution styles, or the way in which one interprets important events in their lives, greatly affects whether one is an optimist or pessimist. A pessimistic person is more likely to view external failures as internal faults (e.g. nothing ever works out for me and I fail at everything I do). On the other hand, optimistic people are more likely to view external failures as externally caused (e.g. this situation was nearly impossible, so this attempt was not very successful). In a dichotic listening experiment, participants heard a set of instructions through headphones either with their left or right ear. It found that those that listened with their right ear, and therefore used their left hemisphere, were more likely to attribute their successes to themselves internally and their failures to externalities.

These three factors also help to explain how a pessimistic world view can lead to certain mental health disorders. Hypochondriasis, or the excessive worry of having a serious illness, is much more likely in pessimists, perhaps because selective information processing leads people to zero in on potentially harmful effects they’re feeling in their body. Depression is sometimes describes as a “pathological state of pessimism,” and it has been associated with either a hyperactive right hemisphere or hypoactive left hemisphere in many studies. Mania, on the other hand, is caused by a hyperactive left hemisphere, causing an “elevated mood, euphoria, and unjustified optimism.”


Hecht, David. "The Neural Basis of Optimism and Pessimism." Experimental Neurobiology. The Korean Society for Brain and Neural Science, Sept. 2013. Web. 12 Dec. 2016.

"Optimism and Pessimism." PositivePsychology.org.uk. N.p., 15 Nov. 2016. Web. 12 Dec. 2016.

Paul, Annie Murphy. "The Uses and Abuses of Optimism and Pessimism." Psychology Today. N.p., 1 Nov. 2011. Web. 12 Dec. 2016.

"Pessimism vs Optimism." World of Psychology. PsychCentral, 17 Mar. 2011. Web. 12 Dec. 2016.

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