The Science of Optimism: How Gender, Age, and Race Affect Your Outlook | William Magee

Optimistic people tend to live longer than pessimistic people. That’s true whether you’re rich or poor, young or old, and no matter your race, says sociologist William Magee. As part of a five-year study on hope and optimism—a collaboration between the Templeton Foundation and Notre Dame, Cornell, and the University of Pennsylvania—Magee looked at what personal characteristics overlap with having an optimistic worldview. Are the well-educated naturally more optimistic? What about those who have a financial advantage in life? As Magee explains, reverse causality can obscure the relationship between education, class and optimism (does good education produce optimism, or vice versa?), but more immutable factors such as age, race, and gender paint a more realistic picture.


Follow Big Think here:

It’s clear that in terms of optimistic positivity as a predictor of mortality it does predict mortality, and it predicts mortality when you control for lots of different self-reported health problems, depression, scales that have been validated, self-reported health.
If you’re interested in predicting things from optimism—or optimistic positivity—you want to look at what predicts it. And that’s what I was focusing on in that first paper. So we have three papers already started. Basically we’re looking at explicit measures of optimism as well as these—we’re using wording effects to measure what we’re calling implicit measures of perceptual optimism and pessimism.

That positive wording bias is a form of optimism. But if you’re looking at the world in more positive ways you’re taking information in and you’re framing it in positive ways. And you’re seeing it so you’re reacting to it in positive ways. Sometimes in a way that you don’t even know that you’re doing, right? It’s so subtle, it’s like a wording effect that you couldn’t say—it’s not like I’m asking you: Are you responding this way to these words or that way to those words? We can detect it statistically over people.

So when you’re asking people to say things about themselves on a survey, for example, you’re asking them: “Are you a good person? Are you a competent person?” There’s a whole series of questions you can ask them. Some of them are worded positively, some of them negatively, and usually those wordings, those survey questions are used to create scales of things like self-esteem, self-efficacy, mastery.

And there’s a latent variable. The idea is that there’s something out there that is latent, and it explains some variance in how people answer these questions.

And we’re putting that together with some measures that ask people about how optimistic they are using language, explicitly, and saying that together those things create this phenomena. And we’re saying that the phenomena goes deep, to the level of perception.

Is it itself a form of stratification? Is there something about optimism that’s a resource that we can understand as a psychological good, like happiness, right. And so if it’s stratified in a population how is it associated with other kinds of stratification—income and so forth, education? And so you’re saying, well: class. The real interesting one is class, right? Everybody wants to know: “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps, think positively, you’ll be successful. If you’re optimistic you’ll be successful.” But of course if you’re successful you’re going to be optimistic so there’s the reverse causality thing, and so taking a class and looking at classes is a really interesting part that I want to get to.

And I think that’s an interesting question because there’s a lot of theory around sociology and emotions, around the idea that expectations are created. The ability to meet expectations generates energy. That energy is what allows people to do things, that emotional energy. And then it replicates itself. So people are convinced to be optimistic, especially the middle classes. And if they’re not able to achieve those expectations then their energy goes down, and they become dissatisfied.

There’s some difference with cohorts. I know I see with race difference, I see cohort differences. When you were born. And that makes sense in terms of things like the civil rights movement and what you experienced in your life, right? And in your hopes and dreams and so forth.
But the question I’m looking at now first, of course, is while you can’t change, you know there’s not much way that your optimism or pessimism is going to change your gender in a statistically significant way. It might change. People can change their genders. But it’s not going to change your age. It’s not going to change your birth cohort.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *