In sports as in life how you interpret or explain negative and positive events is crucial. This largely depends on your so-called ‘explanatory style’. Like a simple general example, it is how you see the glass – half empty or half full?

Explanatory style is a way of explaining events that derive directly from your view of your place in the world, whether you think you are valuable and deserving, or worthless and hopeless. In other words, it reveals whether you are an optimist or a pessimist.

According to well-known psychologist Martin Seligman(1), people can learn to become more optimistic by challenging their negative self-talk and replacing pessimistic thoughts with more positive and productive ones.

Last month I have written about this powerful inner voice we have when we “speak to ourselves” – the power of self-talk:
Inner champion – part 1:
Inner champion – part 2:

So, let’s go back to the explanatory style. In his book “Learned Optimism(1) Seligman states “even if pessimism is partially hereditary, it is also learned through childhood experiences and thinking habits developed through life. If people learn to become hopeless and pessimistic, they can learn to become more optimistic and happier.

To explain the significance of learned optimism he described the main dimensions of optimistic and pessimistic explanatory styles: permanence, pervasiveness, and personalization.

PERMANENCE: temporary vs. permanent
People who are pessimists and give up easily believe the causes of bad events (that happen to them) are permanent, will persist, and will always be there to affect their lives, reflected in statements such as “He never talks to me” or “I am not good at remembering dates”.

People who explain bad events as temporary conditions have an optimistic style, reflected in statements such as “I forgot his birthday because I was too busy that day.”

Optimistic people explain good events to themselves in terms of permanent causes: traits, abilities, always’s, as in: “I am talented and this is why I have succeeded.” Pessimists name temporary causes, such as moods, lack, or sometimes’s, as in: “It was a stroke of luck that day.”

People who believe good events have permanent causes try even harder after they succeed. People who see temporary reasons for good events may give up even when they succeed, believing success was a lucky coincidence.

PERVASIVENESS: specific vs. universal
People who make universal explanations for troubles give up on everything when failure strikes in one area. They tend to break under pressure, both for a long time and across situations, reflected in statements such as: “All teachers are unfair.”

People who make specific explanations may become helpless in that one part of their lives but remain generally strong through life, reflected in statements such as: “That math professor is unfair.”

The optimistic explanatory style for good events is the opposite for bad events. The optimist believes that bad events have specific causes, while good events will enhance everything they do, as in: “I am generally a very charming person.”

The pessimist believes that bad events have universal causes, and good events are caused by specific factors, as in: “Because of my friends, she found me charming.”

PERSONALIZATION: internal vs. external
When bad things happen, we can blame ourselves (internalize) or we can blame other people or circumstances (externalize). People who blame themselves when they fail have low self-esteem consequently. An example is a statement: “I am not talented, and this is why I did not succeed.” Low self-esteem usually comes from people using internal style for bad events. They think they are worthless, talentless, and unlovable.

People who blame external events do not lose self-esteem when bad events strike. An example of this is: “The teacher had not explained it to me well, and this is why I did not improve.”

The optimistic style of explaining good events is the opposite of the one used for bad events: it is internal rather than external. People who believe they cause good things tend to like themselves better than people who believe good things come from other people or circumstances.

According to Seligman(1), personalization only controls how you feel about yourself, but pervasiveness and permanence control what you do – in other words how long you are helpless and across how many situations.

I hope this article was interesting for you to understand what is behind your explanatory style and how you can change it – from being more optimistic, useful, and effective.


    (1) Seligman, M. (2006). Learned optimism. How to change your mind and your life. (3rd ed.) New York: Vintage Books
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