Pessimistic Explanatory Style in the Historical Record: CAVing LBJ, Presidential Candidates, and East Versus West Berlin

Harold M. Zullow, Gabriele Oettingen, Christopher Peterson, Martin E.P. Seligman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

Abstract

The habitual way people explain causes (explanatory style) as assessed by questionnaire has been used to predict depression, achievement, and health, with a pessimistic style predicting poor outcomes. Because some individuals whose behavior is of interest cannot take questionnaires, their explanatory style can be assessed by blind, reliable content analysis of verbatim explanations (CAVE) from the historical record. We discuss three examples of CAVing archival material. First, shifts to a more optimistic style in Lyndon Johnson's press conferences predicted bold, risky action during the Vietnam War, whereas shifts to pessimism predicted passivity. Second, analyses of presidential candidates' nomination acceptance speeches from 1948 to 1984 showed that candidates who were more pessimistically ruminative lost 9 of the 10 elections. Third, explanatory style and its relation to depressive signs was considered at a societal level. There were more behavioral signs consistent with depression among workmen in East Berlin than in West Berlin bars. This finding corresponded to a comparatively more pessimistic explanatory style in East Berlin newspaper reports concerning the 1984 Winter Olympics. We suggest that pessimism and its consequences can be quantified and compared, not only in contemporary individuals but also across time and culture.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)673-682
Number of pages10
JournalAmerican Psychologist
Volume43
Issue number9
DOIs
StatePublished - Sep 1988

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychology(all)

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