Sunday, October 30, 2011

Learned Optimism

Trust me (I'm a doctor)--it's not a self-help book. I don't like anything that even smells like a self-help book. But I've been interested in psychology for a long time and recently heard of a relatively new strand called positive psychology. My psychologist friends tell me that its strongest proponent is Martin Seligman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who became famous for disproving strict behaviorism by showing that dogs could learn to be helpless. If dogs (and people) can learn to be helpless, why can't they learn to be healthy?

Positive psychology has three roots: 1) the unfortunate fact that most psychology focuses on deviance rather than prevention, 2) studies showing that how we think impacts our lives in many ways, and 3) therapeutic evidence proving we can change how we think, and for the better. In brief, Seligman and other positive psychologists want to fix how we think before we have problems.

According to Seligman, everyone understands events along three dimensions: how representative or pervasive they are, how permanent their effects will be, and how personally responsible we are for them. If something goes wrong for a total pessimist, he will say "Everything is going wrong for me. Things will never change. And it's all my fault." If something goes wrong for a total optimist, she will tell herself, "This one thing is bad right now. It won't always be like this. And many people and circumstances are at fault." Seligman has shown that optimistic people tend to be happier and more successful than pessimists. People prone to depression and people who are depressed tend to have pessimistic explanations of events.

Becoming more optimistic and avoiding depression involves learning how to argue with yourself. You have to interrupt the pessimistic explanatory patterns that may have become natural to you and use more optimistic ones. When you say to yourself, "It's all my fault; I'm a bad person," you catch yourself and say, "I'm just having a bad day" or "The person who yelled at me is just having a bad day."

This book was fascinating to me, because, as a card-carrying philosopher, I see the pessimistic explanations as bad reasoning. Pessimists use false generalizations to understand particular events. To look at one misfortune as representative of a supposedly failed life is simply a logical fallacy. Learning to be an optimist, then, is learning to be more rational.

However, optimists can fall prey to the exact same fallacy. When something good comes their way, they tell themselves, "My life is great. It will always be this way. And it's all my doing." This rose-colored vision has pitfalls of its own, and Seligman is careful to say that what we need above all is balance in our thinking. The pessimistic explanatory style should be used when you're thinking about something risky, like financial planning, career moves, or performing surgery on others. The optimistic style should be used for explaining everyday events, especially other people's behavior.

I think programmers tend to be optimists, since they are usually confident about their own abilities and quick to point to other causes when things don't go well. I often hear explanations like, "Our delivery is late because the customer changed the requirements," or "The code is terrible, but I didn't design it," or "It works on my machine--I can't imagine why it doesn't work anywhere else." It's easy to place the blame on the complex systems we collectively build, because, in the end, no one can really be said to be at fault. We can always be sure, however, that our code is good, since we complete projects and don't get fired much, as we're in high demand.

The problem with optimism is that confidence can breed arrogance and that systems-thinking can breed quiescence. Arrogance is a problem because it makes you hard to work with. It causes you to underestimate how long a project will take. It can also lead you to miss changes in the field. It's easy to coast for a while as a programmer, until you suddenly find that no one uses your technology of choice any longer. One way to fight arrogance is to force yourself to learn new technologies. You'll quickly realize how dumb you really are.

The main way to fight quiescence, unfortunately, is to change corporate culture. Google and other companies have experimented with giving programmers a fixed amount of time to do whatever they want. Programmers typically fix things that have been driving them crazy or build in-house tools to do what they do more easily. If you don't work at Google, you have to be the change you want to see. If you want to work on a system with good code and with people who take responsibility for it, take the initiative yourself. Programmers don't like to be shown up. Once one person starts, it will be hard for others not to join in.

-Take the Learned Optimism Test


  1. One of the biggest issues with optimism is in risk management. I'm taking a class on project management, and this issue was highlighted rather heavily (and has become a big focus for the PMP exam, apparently). Most people tend to be too optimistic when it comes to outlining the risks for a project, and that is probably the leading factor to why IT projects have such a dismal success rate.

    Coupled with poor risk management, I would also say that testing/QA is another area that is negatively affected by developer optimism. It's hard to look through a system and find the points of potential failure. It's even harder to step out of it and develop all the necessary test cases to verify and validate that what you've written is actually as solid as you think it is. Never mind the blow to one's ego that arises when someone finds a bug...

    I've been working through "The Happiness Hypothesis" by John Haidt, which is based on Seligman's concepts. He actually works to bring ancient philosophies (Buddhism, Stoicism), psychology, and other sciences together to develop a more unified approach. Very good book, I think you'd enjoy it.

  2. That's very interesting! I've heard of Haidt, but I don't think I've ever read anything by him. I'll have to check it out. Thanks!


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