Explanatory style points to success or (repetitive) failure

Yelling at the TV while watching the netball on Saturday night didn’t make much difference to the final result. In the back of my mind, I was recalling the article that had predicted that the Silver Ferns wouldn’t win the world championship.

I’d read “Learned Optimism“, by Martin Seligman, many years ago and was impressed not only by his central idea but also that he could successfully predict the success or failure of baseball (and other sports) teams simply by what the coach and captain said at the conclusion of their matches. One of Seligman’s early successes was in the insurance industry, where he showed that the level of optimism was a better indicator of future success for an insurance salesperson than the level of academic ability.

In general, people who are more optimistic are more resilient, and more likely to succeed in the face of adversity and resistance. Seligman has developed extensive tests for gauging how optimistic or pessimistic people are. He has also developed a range of assessments that measure resilience, happiness and satisfaction with life.

Seligman has found that optimism and hence resilience are conveyed through explanatory style. The things you and I say about why we succeed and fail. There are three main dimensions:

  • permanence - how temporary or permanent are the factors explained as
  • pervasiveness - how universal or specific you make the factors
  • personalisation - how much the factor is internal (me, us) or external (you, them, it)

Optimist statements vs. Pessimist statements after a LOSS:

  • temporary (this game, today) vs. permanent (can’t play, team isn’t gelling)
  • external (they played well, the pitch was poor) vs. personal (we played badly, I stuffed up)
  • specific (backhand volley) vs. universal (all my shots)

Optimist statements vs. Pessimist statements after a WIN:

  • permanent (skill) vs. temporary (got lucky)
  • personal (I’m playing well) vs. external (they had an off day)
  • universal (we have a complete game) vs. specific (the scrum was working well)

The national curse? Just how comfortable are we in attributing success to ourselves, with permanence and universality? “Big noter” comes to mind, swiftly followed by the great Kiwi knocking machine and the need to prune tall poppies. We may think this defines us and humility (of a sort) is a virtue, but it comes at a cost.

Here’s Roger Federer, after losing to Fernando Gonzalez, in round-robin play at the Masters Cup:

“I thought actually I played pretty good,” Federer said. “In some ways I have regrets, and in some ways I don’t because I just thought it was ridiculous what kind of shots he came up with. But you’ve got to give him credit for that.”

Who’s playing in the Masters Cup final today?


Just in - Federer wins fourth Masters Cup. And what did he say?

“Once I get on a roll it’s so hard for my opponents to come back. I don’t allow them.”

Permanent, pervasive, personal.

2 Responses to “Explanatory style points to success or (repetitive) failure”

  1. No Wombats » Blog Archive » OK - so the Black Caps won Says:

    [...] the South Africans had an off day, the explanatory style principle holds true more often than not and this was obviously an [...]

  2. Offices to rent Tameside Says:

    Certainly got us thinking here are work, expect a few replies later.

Leave a Reply