Optimistic Thinking by Louis Manzo, Ph.D. (2003)


The first project that is up for discussion this afternoon or at least presentation to start is a study on optimistic thinking. The full title of this project when we first received it was the evaluation of a self-guided intervention designed to teach youth swimmers how to think like optimists. Louis Manzo is here with us this afternoon and was one of our three grant recipients. He is representing the University of Notre Dame and will share with you for the next twenty minutes the results of his research.

Louis Manzo: Thank you. I am glad everyone is here this afternoon and what I want to do is spend a few minutes talking about the project that we did at Notre Dame, the development of a self guided intervention in the form of a work book. That was entitled the “Optimistic Swimmer” and there is actually a corresponding web site that we have – right now it is currently down and we are fixing some bugs in it. I do want to acknowledge my colleagues, Chris Ealy Halliday and Melissa Blake who helped with the development of the workbook as well as the study that we completed. Before I get going and talk about in-depth the results of the study I do want to talk a little bit about what does it mean to think like an optimist.

I am a psychologist and we actually have very specific criteria of what it means to think like an optimist or think like a pessimist and whenever we experience a success or a setback, an athlete is going to ask themselves some questions to try to figure out what caused that result. They are going to become a kind of mini scientist or investigator to try to figure things out.

What we know is that optimists make sense of the causes of their experiences through three dimension. We like to call those the three peas of positive thinking and those three dimensions are permanence, pervasiveness and personalization. I just want to go through those terms really quickly with you so you get a taste for what we talked about in the workbook for the youth swimmers.

Permanence is really about time. It is about the length of time you perceive the cause of your success or setback will be present in your life. And so we can see those causes as temporary or permanent. So if I do a poor talk this afternoon how long do I see that cause to today’s talk being present in my life? Was it because I was nervous? Something that is temporary or was it something that is more permanent – I am just a bad speaker.

Pervasiveness – whether you feel the cause of that misfortune, that setback or that success is actually going to lead over into other areas of your life. If I do a poor talk this afternoon does that mean I am also not a very good friend and a bad son. We can see those causes within the dimension of pervasiveness as either very specific or universal. Is it specific just to public speaking in this example or universal to who I am as a person.

The last dimension is personalization and this is about how much blame we assign to ourselves or how much responsibility do we assign to ourselves for our setbacks and our successes. And this dimension is between those things internal to us – are we totally responsible for everything that is related to our success or setback? Or is it external to us. Are there some things that are not related to us.

When I talk to athletes and coaches about this dimension people get a little concerned because we want our athletes to take responsibility for not only their successes but also their setbacks so that they can make changes. With this dimension what we are really talking about is when we have setbacks – especially our athletes have setbacks they are more likely to take 100% responsibility for some of those setbacks and I think Dr. Daniels talked about some pieces. There is luck that is involved. There are some things that are out of our control – maybe luck isn’t helpful in increasing our motivation if we take responsibility for them. This work has grown out of the work of Martin ___________ who is an eminent psychologist. So what does it mean to think like an optimist.

Its going to be broken down across both your successful experiences and your negative experiences , an optimist is basically going to interpret the causes of their successes as permanent – whatever caused me to be successful in my race yesterday is always going to be there – my training. It is universal so within that pervasiveness dimensions universal, it is always there. I am a hard worker. I worked hard in my training – that is why it is going to be there and it is internal. I got the job done. I made sure I had the qualities. I had the mental skills. I had the physical skills and the coaching – that is what is going to help me succeed. Now there is the flip side for those setbacks.

Optimists use self protective strategies to protect themselves and one of those strategies is how they interpret the cause of those setbacks. So they see those causes as temporary so if I did poorly yesterday in my race – oh I just had bad race, you know, I wasn’t prepared. It was specific to that particular event or that particular meet. An external; that setback was not 100% due to me. My competitors really were on their game that day and they just swam out of their head. When we talk about pessimists it is actually the exact opposite.

Pessimists are going to interpret the causes of their successes as temporary so they are fleeting, they are not always there. it is not always specific and it is external to them. It is all due to luck whereas the negative experiences they own all their setbacks. They take 100 % responsibility for all those setbacks so they are permanent, universal and internal. Now, why is this important? The reason this is important is this sets up a self-fulfilling prophecy where peoples motivation is going to be affected for example, the optimist who has a setback who does poorly in a race is more likely to believe their improvement is under their control so they are more likely to come in for extra coaching sessions, more practice, focus on their technique – those kind of things.

The pessimist who has a setback is actually going to do the exact opposite – start showing up late for practice, start goofing around, not being prepared – those kind of things. So you are going to see dramatic differences in motivation based on whether they make sense of their successes or their setbacks from an optimistic or pessimistic perspective. Now I didn’t come up with all this theory – this approach – like I said came out of __________ work and there has actually been a lot of research that suggests that thinking like an optimist is actually going to have a real advantage mentally for athletes.

________ did a famous study – I believe it was in 1990 where he worked with the coaches up at University of California at Berkley. They had all their swimmers – get together and they said we want to do some time trials to see how well you are swimming. We want you to go out and swim your best event as fast as possible. So they had their athletes do that, but they were a little tricky. __________ was there and said we want to play a little trick on them. We want to see how they are going to respond to a setback. So they lied to those athletes on how well they did. And depending on their event, whether it was a long distance or a sprint, they buried how poorly they did. They reduced their time by a second or two seconds or a half a second – that kind of stuff so it would be a simulated defeat. And the athletes were really discouraged they didn’t like this. No one likes to do poorly so they said, you know what – take a rest – why don’t you rest for about a half hour – we will have you come back and you can do the time trial again.

Now before they ever did these time trials ________ sat down with these athletes and had them fill out some paper and pencil measures to figure out if you could categorize them as optimists or pessimists. What he found was when they actually went out and did the second time trial, the optimists actually improved their performance. So their speed went up. They swam better than they did before. The pessimist actually plummeted. Their speed, their times in the second time trial dropped. The key is just how they responded to this negative event or perceived negative event. What was really astounding was some of the people who were categorized as pessimists who were world class sprinters continued to drop their speeds. They did worse. They did poorly.

There has been some replication in other areas also in terms of baseball and basketball. Within the area of basketball, _____ colleagues had found that if we can assess the overall optimism of a team – a basketball team – and track these teams across an entire season – they found that wins following a loss were more likely for those teams that were categorized overall as optimistic. And the same followed for baseball. Winning percentage was higher for those teams that were found to be more optimistic and this research isn’t actually just limited to sport. He has volumes and volumes of research based on in terms of mental health, other areas of performance. One of the real nice things, every time the elections come around _____ was able to go back and assess – when they accept – their acceptance speech – presidential candidates at the conventions – he was able to predict, based on those speeches who would then become – who would win the national elections. They can also do this now. They have a lot of political consultants now contact them to help them write the speeches so they can be more optimistic because what they found is, the public responds more to optimists.

A little bit away from sport, _______ and his colleagues in Pennsylvania actually worked with fifth and sixth graders and if you are optimistic you are going to do better. Your performance is going to improve. You are going to have a healthier lifestyle, you are going to be happier. Can we train people to be more optimistic. He put together a procedure and a program in the school system with fifth and sixth graders where they actually had 12 sessions – I believe that was a total of 24 hours, to train fifth and sixth graders to think like optimists. What they found, is after that 12 week period symptoms of depression dropped by over 35% and after two years symptoms of depression dropped by 100% so we know that: A. thinking like an optimist can help improve performance – especially in sports and B. we can train people to think like optimists.

So, from that I thought well why don’t we develop some kind of procedure or some kind of workbook where we can provide this to young swimmers to help them learn how to think like optimists, to guide them in that process and that will ultimately help them live better lives, be healthier and ultimately improve their performance and that. We created the optimistic swimmer workbook. This is about a 41 page workbook with five lesson plans and it is very simple.

The first lesson just talks about what are the benefits of thinking like an optimist. There is a little synopsis of the Berkley study. It talks a little bit about the benefits of looking at experiences from different perspectives and then it goes through each of those dimensions – permanence, pervasiveness and personalization. Now this was designed for youth swimmers so it was not necessarily designed for adults, let me put it that way because I want to make sure – even 10 or 11 year olds could benefit from it.

Some of the things that I did is I put a lot of exercises in it, not only did we have factual information or psycho-educational information I wanted to include exercises that would give them repeated exposure to the information. An examples of the exercises is where I would have a picture of a swimmer and a little call out box of what they were thinking and I would ask the swimmer to identify – is this a permanent or a temporary statement. How would –what would be your new statement that you would construct from that?

So I will never this stroke. That would be more of a permanent statement – the never aspect. And so the new statement could be something like if I focus on my technique with my coach after practice I will get the stroke down – that kind of stuff.

So, these are examples of some of the exercises with a lot of the call out boxes is to kind of make it more fun for students. I actually did get some of the students come up to me that participated in the study and they loved going through the book. They really enjoyed it. they thought it was kind of fun and that was part of the idea. Alright, but most importantly – if we are going to do things we have to do it from a scientific perspective and I want to see – does this have any impact and what we did is I recruited 50 youth swimmers from a local mid-western swimming club.

I distributed 50 _____ packets and those packets included the _______ style questionnaire which is an assessment that we use to determine if someone is an optimist or a pessimist, as well as a background questionnaire that gathered demographic information and some performance data. We distributed 50 pretest packets and that included consent forms because most of these swimmers were below 18 so we needed parental consent. We received 21 of the packets back. So that was about 42% response rate. From those 21 individuals we split them up. We randomly assigned them to their experimental group or the control group.

Those in the control group did not get any kind of intervention. They just got the post-test measures four weeks later. Those in the experimental group received the workbook.

After four weeks we then contacted them by mail and asked them to fill out the post-test measures which were basically once again the same attributional style questionnaire.

Just some demographics; the average age was 14.76 years. They ranged from 11 to 18 year old, predominantly female – 2/3 of our sample was female and predominantly Caucasian.

Post-test participants – after that month period – after contacting people several times we only received 7 completed post-test questionnaires, which from the 21 represents a 33% response rate, but if I am going to be really honest it is 14% of our original 50. Once again, we had three in the control group, while four were in the

__________ predominantly female since we only had one male in the whole group. What did we find?

Well I know with such a small sample it is suspect even to analyze some of this data but I want to move ahead and see if we could determine some of our findings and so I share these findings tentatively with a grain of salt. I really like to think of this more as a pilot study than anything else and this is something that we need to replicate and do more often. We have spoken with USA swimming about doing some of those things. What did we find?

Attributional style is basically a composite score that can give you an overall optimism score. We ran a one way analysis of variants, and we found that there is no significant difference at pretest between those in the control or in the experimental group.

In terms of our post-test measures we found that there is a significant difference between our pre and post test. As a matter of fact those in the treatment group increased their level of optimism as measured by the attributional style questionnaire by over 96% and that is a significant difference. So even though we had this very small sample size and we have to interpret this cautiously, what this is telling us is those who were exposed to the workbook increased their overall level of optimism. We can even break it down a little further:

Co-pause is a composite score of how people respond just to positive events. Once again there is no significant difference between the control and treatment at pretest but we are starting to see some significant difference – approaching significance – actually this one we did have significant differences between the control and the treatment at post-test so following a positive event we are seeing some higher levels of optimistic thinking – just those who were exposed to the workbook.

The last one and most importantly I think is how they respond to negative events. We didn’t find statistically significant results here but we are approaching significance. One of the things I should point out on this for the slide; lower scores on this measure actually represent a more optimistic way of thinking. And what we see is following a setback those who were exposed – who received the workbook actually increased their level of optimistic thinking, whereas the controls basically remained stable and that is pretty much a trend across all the dimensions – or all the measures. Those in the control remain constant whereas there was some significant changes or approaching statistically significant changes on those who received the workbook.

Conclusions: basically we can say that there was some significant effects in terms of those who were exposed to the workbook whereas those in the control group were unchanged. We also see that there are significant effects following positive events and negative events, as measured by the ASQ – but we have some real serious limitations.

Small sample size. During the pretest and post-test phases, as well as the retention in the study. We started off with 50 and we ended up with 7 and this is a major problem – in fact I will be honest – I am a little embarrassed to even present the findings. However, what makes me feel a little bit better is I was coordinating with USA Swimming to actually gather some data from swimming clubs across the country – I think we had over a hundred swimmers involved. They ran into the exact same problem I did and they were unable to kind of get that post-test data back from us so that has been a real problem.

If I was to redesign the study – there would have to be a lot more checks and balances in terms of that data collection – working with coaches – working with parents to make sure we can get the data back in a timely fashion that is useable. In addition, since this was just a pilot test, our measures for performance were not as robust as I would like and I would really want to improve that – maybe have coaches provide us with pre and post performance data in terms of times and like I said this is just a nice little pilot study and we could move forward but what I think is very promising is the notion that just distributing the workbook has been shown to have some improvement – it has helped change some of those swimmers – how they think about or make sense of those positive and negative experiences and thus thinking more like an optimist.

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