Explanatory Style in Psychology Video

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  • 0:03 Pessimism & Optimism
  • 1:20 The Three Ps of…
  • 3:33 Learned Helplessness &…
  • 4:47 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Daniel Murdock

Daniel has taught Public Health at the graduate level and has a Ph.D. in Behavioral Sciences & Health Education.

In this lesson, we'll explore the psychological concept of explanatory style using the polar opposite concepts of pessimism and optimism. We'll examine three basic aspects of explanatory style and discuss how explanatory style is related to learned helplessness and learned optimism.

Pessimism & Optimism

Think of a time in your life when you experienced a setback of some kind. For example, maybe you did poorly on a big test, or you didn't get hired after a job interview. How did you explain your circumstances to yourself? Perhaps you shrugged your setback off as temporary bad luck. Or maybe you blamed yourself for the setback. The way that you routinely explain your life circumstances to yourself is called your explanatory style.

People with a pessimistic explanatory style tend to view setbacks as personal, permanent, and pervasive. People with an optimistic explanatory style tend to blame setbacks on outside forces and view them as temporary, isolated events. It's important to remember that most us are neither absolute pessimists nor absolute optimists. For most of us, our explanatory style lies somewhere in the middle of these two extremes.

Let's explore these concepts further by imagining two students, Paul and Olivia, who have polar opposite explanatory styles. Paul has a pessimistic explanatory style, and Olivia has an optimistic explanatory style. In this lesson, we'll take a look at how Paul and Olivia each interpret a setback — flunking a psychology exam — and what it tells us about their explanatory styles.

The Three Ps of Explanatory Style

There are three different aspects of the explanatory style that we use to account for life events. We can think of them as the three Ps: permanence, pervasiveness, and personalization.

Permanence is the degree to which we attribute a life event to either permanent or temporary causes. Pessimists tend to believe that negative life events are because of permanent factors. As a pessimist, after flunking his psychology exam, Paul says to himself, ''I never get good grades.'' Optimists, however, tend to believe that setbacks are because of temporary factors and that positive life events are because of permanent factors. As an optimist, after failing her exam, Olivia tells herself, ''This grade was a fluke. I'll do better next time.''

Pervasiveness is the degree to which we allow our explanations for one event to become explanations for other events across a range of situations. Pessimists tend to believe that negative life events have a pervasive effect on other life events. Pessimistic Paul believes that his exam grade will undermine his whole life, including his familial and social relationships, and future job opportunities. Optimists, like optimistic Olivia, believe that positive life events result from pervasive circumstances, but that setbacks, like her exam grade, are isolated incidents.

Personalization is the degree to which we internalize or externalize the causes of an event. In other words, it's the degree to which we either blame ourselves or blame others for an event. Pessimists tend to internalize negative events and externalize positive events. Conversely, optimists tend to internalize positive events and externalize negative events. Paul and Olivia fit this pattern. Pessimistic Paul blames himself for flunking his exam, while optimistic Olivia blames her bad grade on the teacher's poorly worded exam questions.

Personalization is one domain in which pessimists can sometimes have an advantage over optimists. Excessive optimists can sometimes misjudge the amount of control they have in a given circumstance. In our example, Olivia fails to acknowledge that she probably should have studied harder for her exam.

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