Listening Topic: Psychology – College lecture on optimism and pessimism

A. Listen and answer the questions below.

 What is optimism? How can you tell that someone is an optimist?

 What is pessimism? How can you tell that someone is a pessimist?

B. Listen to the lecture again. Choose the correct answer to complete each statement. Listen again if necessary.

 The expression seeing the glass half full refers to ___.

      a   optimists

      b   pessimists

 ___ may determine if a person is an optimist or a pessimist.

      a   Education

      b   Genetics

 ___ recover more quickly from surgery and have fewer complications.

      a   optimists

      b   pessimists

 ___ overcome obstacles more easily.

      a   optimists

      b   pessimists

 ___ find it easier to admit how bad a situation is.

      a   optimists

      b   pessimists

 If you are a pessimist by nature, you ___ change.

      a   can

      b   can’t



Your own answers


1 a   2 b   3 a   4 a   5 b   6 a


A = Professor, B = Student 1, C = Student 2

A:   Today we’re going to spend most of the class talking about the personality characteristics of optimism and pessimism, and the effects these attitudes have on a person’s emotional and physical being.

First, what are optimism and pessimism?

Optimism is typically defined as the attitude of believing in and expecting positive results, while pessimism is the tendency to believe in negative outcomes. You may have heard this referred to as seeing the “glass half empty or half full.” The idea is that pessimists see what’s missing, or that the glass is half empty, while optimists see what is there; or that the glass is half full.

Where do these attitudes come from? What is it that makes one person generally optimistic while someone else is usually pessimistic? Psychologists and researchers are not really sure, although it appears that genetics may play a part. What we do know is these two attitudes play a big part in the outcomes in a person’s life.

For example, in medicine, studies have shown that patients who scored highly as pessimists take longer to recover from major surgery and are more likely to have complications from that. Additionally, pessimists tend not to take very good care of themselves in general. On the other hand, people who were rated optimistic tend to be healthier.

Additionally, researchers looking at students in stressful majors have found that optimists consistently were more successful in surmounting obstacles, and in fact, when suffering a set back, came back and overcame the difficulty successfully. In contrast, pessimists did worse when attempting a retry. Another interesting study followed sales people and measured their success in closing deals. As you might have guessed, the optimists out sold the pessimists every time.

…Yes, you have a question?

B:   Yeah, isn’t it possible that optimists are just in denial about how bad things really are? That they’re not in touch with reality, and so they’re hopeful in hopeless situations?

A:   That’s a good question. At a glance, it might seem as if that were true, however, the research shows that true optimists are not in denial; that they do feel painful emotions and work through traumatic experiences, but are hopeful about the eventual result. Another advantage is that optimists seem to have strong problem solving skills and this helps them in dealing with stressful situations.


C:   How can you determine if a person is pessimistic or optimistic?

A:   The most common ways that researchers decide if you are an optimist or a pessimist are by studying your answers to certain questionnaires and by listening to your speech patterns.

C:   So is it possible to change? I mean, if you’re a pessimist, can you suddenly become an optimist?

A:   Another good question! Well, first it does seem that people have one or the other general tendency throughout their life. In fact, these traits show up in early childhood and optimistic parents tend to have optimistic children.

Of course, as a parent, you can encourage your children to be optimistic. One suggestion is to give them tasks that they can perform, and succeed at, as well as tasks that they can attempt, fail and try again successfully. This teaches them an attitude of optimism in the face of failure.

Now, to answer your question, if you are not a ‘natural born optimist’ there are things you can do develop a more positive outlook. Can you guess what they might be?

B:   I guess you can force yourself not to think negatively.

A:   That’s true. If you catch yourself having negative thoughts about yourself, like many pessimists do, stop and think about what’s going right in your life. Is your assessment of your abilities based in reality, or are you too hard on yourself?

Okay, now I’d like to hear from the rest of you. What do you think? Are you an optimist or a pessimist and tell me subjectively how that attitude has influenced your life.

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