The Art of Strengths Coaching

E is for Explanatory Style: How We Interpret Events

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Many psychologists have done research into why people choose to be optimistic or pessimistic. They believe the key is to be found in what they call a person’s ‘Explanatory Style’.

This is the way that a person’s chooses to explain life’s events. It is particularly crucial in the way they interpret their own successes and setbacks. Their personal conclusions strongly influence whether they become optimistic or pessimistic.

Some studies call this a person’s ‘Attributional Style’ rather than ‘Explanatory Style’. This refers to what they attribute things to regarding the events in their lives. For example, to their own efforts, outside forces or a mixture of both.

The following pages provide an overview of the findings. Some people may have caveats about aspects of the findings, however, so these are also included.

Positive and Negative
Explanatory Styles

The researchers found a set of three variables that could make up a person’s explanatory style. A person would interpret an event, such as a success or setback, by consciously or unconsciously using this framework. They would ask whether the factors around it were:

Internal or External.

Was the event driven by the person or caused by external events?

Stable or Unstable.

Was the event likely to be repeated in the future, would things remain in this state or could things be changed?

Global or Local.

Was the event something that affected the person’s whole life or just affected part of it?

Each of these elements could be seen as polar opposites. For example, a success could be seen as totally driven by a person (Internal) or totally due to outside influences (External).

Another view was to see each of these on a sliding scale. For example, a person might feel they had a strong Internal influence on shaping an event – they did most of the work – but there were also some External factors.

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Martin Seligman and other researchers have also highlighted some key themes regarding the application of their findings.

Bearing in mind whether a person is described as an Optimist or a Pessimist, here are some ways that the researchers said such people interpret positive or negative events.

The Optimist’s Belief About Positive Events

“I have played a key part in creating the event. Such events are more likely to happen in the future. The event also has a positive effect on other parts of my life.”

The Optimist’s Belief About Negative Events

“I have done my best. The negative event occurred because of things beyond my control. Such events are occasional. I can do my best, however, to get better results in the future. The event is confined to one part of my life. The rest of my life is fine.”

The Pessimist’s Belief About Positive Events

“The positive event has happened because of outside forces. I have played little part in making it happen. Such events are no more likely to happen in the future. The event has little positive effect on other parts of my life.”

The Pessimist’s Belief About Negative Events

“I am responsible for the negative event. Such events are likely to happen again and again. There is little I can do to stop these happening. This kind of negative event is replicated across my life.”

Reactions and Reservations

There have been positive reactions and some reservations about these findings. Here are some of them.


People who are optimistic often demonstrate benefits in their personal and professional lives. They are more likely to feel they can shape their futures, be positive, encourage others, do fulfilling work and stay healthy.

People who are blindly optimistic, however, can fall into denial and have an unrealistic view of their abilities. They can become a risk to both themselves and others.


People who are pessimistic are more prone to difficulties in their personal and professional lives. They are more likely to feel they cannot shape their futures, be negative, discourage others, do unrewarding work and develop illnesses.

People who are pessimistic, however, can sometimes make realistic judgements about risks and rewards. This may not always be the case, but it can be valuable at times. On the other hand, their ongoing perception of potential failure can lead to paralysis.

Optimist, Pessimist
Or A Mixture of Both?

There is obviously a danger in labelling somebody as an Optimist or Pessimist. We are each made up of many factors. We may be optimistic in one area of our lives and pessimistic in another.

Peak performers, for example, are often Positive Realists. They have a positive attitude, but are also able to read reality. They then focus on what they can control to deliver positive results.

Suzanne Segerstrom has done an enormous amount of research into optimism and pessimism. Despite feeling drawn towards the former, she had reservations about the unrealistic optimism shown by some people.

After many years, she finally arrived at definition of optimism with which she felt comfortable. This is:

“You expect the best in the future, and you work to achieve it. You believe that the future is something that you can control.”

You can read more about Suzanne’s work in her book Breaking Murphy’s Law and also in this excellent article by Todd Schwartz.


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