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Animated Edition - Issues 1996 - 2001
Thinking habits
Animated, Spring 1998. So how do you think? Brian Thomas dispels some myths
"I think therefore I am." René Descartes.

In The Psychology of Personal Constructs, George Kelly suggested that human beings have a strong need to make sense of the world around them. He viewed people as 'scientists' who adopt or create systems of explanation that provide reasons for events. Our desire to understand is powerful and we are fascinated by events that cannot be readily explained by existing theories (hence the success of the X Files). This desire to understand is evident very early in life, reflect on the word young children use more often than almost any other - why?

This process of questioning and explaining never stops although as we mature much of it occurs at a non-conscious level. Many psychologists believe that the ways in which we systematically explain the things that happen to us have important effects in many areas of our lives. To appreciate some of the consequences of this idea, try the following exercise.

Imagine that each of the events described below happens to you and then choose one of the two explanations given. If neither explanation seems totally appropriate, select the one that you would be most likely to believe.

1 You prepare thoroughly for an audition but are not selected
a) They didn't see my true potential
b) I got something wrong on the day

2 You help two colleagues resolve a long standing argument
a) They finally agreed to compromise
b) My particular intervention worked effectively

3 You feel physically and mentally exhausted
a) I don't look after myself effectively
b) I have been overdoing things lately

4 You perform a difficult routine flawlessly
a) I am good at this particular style
b) I prepare thoroughly

5 You feel confident and enthusiastic about your work
a) Some good things have happened recently
b) I get the best out of life

6 You lose a £20 note
a) I am careless with money
b) I am disorganised

This exercise is based on the work of psychologist Martin Seligman in the US. Seligman is interested in 'explanatory style', the systematic ways in which people reason about the positive and negative events that happen in their lives. Seligman has identified two classic explanatory styles, Optimistic and Pessimistic and three elements, Personalisation, Permanence and Pervasiveness.

There are three positive and three negative events described above. Event 1, a negative event, may be interpreted in personal or impersonal terms (the Personalisation element). Someone who selects option a) to explain event 1 chooses to see it as a negative event caused by others. Someone selecting option b) chooses to see it as a negative event caused by themselves. Event 2, a positive event, can also be seen as being caused either by others (option a) or oneself (option b).

A person who selects option a) for event 1 and option b) for event 2 chooses to explain the bad event as being caused by others and the good event as being caused by themselves. This is classic Optimistic explanatory style. Conversely, someone who selects option b) for event 1 and option a) for event 2 chooses to explain the bad event as being personally caused and the good event as being caused by others. This is a Pessimistic explanatory style.

Events 3 (negative) and 5 (positive) reflect the Permanence element. Someone who selects option b) for both event 3 and 5 is choosing to explain the negative event as having a temporary cause and the positive event as having a permanent cause (Optimistic). Someone selecting option a) for each would be explaining the negative event as having a permanent cause and the positive event as having a temporary one (Pessimistic).

Events 4 (Positive) and 6 (Negative) reflect the Pervasiveness element. Selecting option b) for event 4 explains it in terms of a Pervasive good quality, thorough preparation, (Optimistic) rather than a limited advantage (Pessimistic). Event 6 can be explained in terms of a specific (therefore limited) weakness, carelessness with money (Optimistic), or in terms of a more general weakness, disorganisation (Pessimistic).

Note that I imply that we have a choice of which explanation to adopt. This is because we do not know what the actual explanations for each event are, which is precisely what happens in many real-life situations, so we select one. The sort of explanation we regularly tend to select is important.

When good things happen, people with an Optimistic explanatory style tend to think:
  • I caused it to happen (Personal)
  • It will probably happen again (Permanent)
  • It will (positively) affect other aspects of my life (Pervasive).

However, when good things happen to people with a Pessimistic explanatory style they tend to think:
  • Somebody other than me caused it to happen (Not personal)
  • It's unlikely to happen again (Not permanent)
  • It won't (positively) affect other aspects of my life (Not pervasive).

Exactly the reverse is true for bad events. Optimists tend to think they are caused by others, that they are temporary and that they won't affect different areas of their lives. Pessimists on the other hand tend to think that they cause bad events, that they will happen again and that they will negatively affect other areas of their lives.

Seligman and others have shown that there is a strong correlation between Pessimistic explanatory style and feelings of helplessness and depression following setbacks or problems occurring in an individual's life. Feelings of helplessness and depression have been shown to adversely affect recovery rates after physical injury and also appear to impede the body's natural immune system making the individual more susceptible to opportunist diseases. An Optimistic explanatory style appears to do the opposite - facilitating physical recovery following injury and empowering the immune system.

I believe that these findings, and others in the field of cognitive behaviour therapy, have considerable implications for virtually every area of our lives, professional and personal. I also believe that we are not doomed to adopt either a Pessimistic or Optimistic explanatory style, they are largely thinking habits. Also there are times when we definitely should not adopt either habit as a matter of course.

Someone with a rapidly enlarging skin mole for example should not think: 'It's probably nothing and it will go away'. Neither should they think: 'It's probably malignant and I will die'. Rather they should think: 'I need to get this checked out quickly'.

My own experience of working with students and professionals from many disciplines suggests that we too often choose a pessimistic thinking style to explain setbacks. I recently spent a morning with a manager who became increasingly convinced that his boss had not contacted him to discuss an important proposal (as promised) because she thought it was completely hopeless. By lunch time he was virtually certain (I am not exaggerating) that he would be sacked and never find another job in the profession. It turned out that his boss had been taken to hospital with acute appendicitis!

We must learn how to challenge thinking habits that are irrationally pessimistic or ridiculously optimistic. The place to begin is the all too common tendency to select Pessimistic explanations for both bad and good events. When you experience a setback do not automatically blame only yourself or assume that it is a catastrophe. Look at your diary for last year and think about all the worries and dreads you had then, how many turned out to be absolute catastrophes? And when something good happens, allow yourself to take some of the credit.

We can learn how to think more effectively and challenge the negative mental habits often acquired in childhood. We are not doomed, like Walt Kelly, to realise too late that: "We have met the enemy, and he is us."

Brian Thomas is a psychologist who works with arts and non arts organisations. He conducts regular workshops on psychological skills. Contact +44 (0)1443 692 536 or by email

Kelly, G., The Psychology of Personal Constructs, Norton, London, 1963

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Animated: Issues 1996 - 2001