Does Positive Psychology of Optimism Favor Trump?

Positive psychology is a branch of social science which focuses on understanding and promoting the trait of optimism. A bedrock notion of positive psychology is that whether one is an optimist or pessimist is determined by one's explanatory style, the way the mind explains bad things which happen to us.

Explanatory style has three dimensions: permanence, pervasiveness, and personalization. Optimists tend to explain bad events as being temporary, “one-off’s” caused by particular circumstances beyond his or her control. Pessimists tend to explain bad events as ongoing, indicative of generalized problems, and they blame themselves.

Psychohistory is the psychological study of historical figures based on their writings, recorded statements, and biographical information. Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents (1929) may be the first major work in psychohistory. Subsequent writings in the field were speculative and psychoanalytical. In "Pessimistic Explanatory Style in the Historical Record", Martin Seligman (widely acknowledged to be the father of positive psychology) changed the game. He hypothesized that optimists are more likely to be elected president than are pessimists. He set out to statistically determine whether, “Other things being equal, people then vote for the candidate who engenders in them more optimistic expectations.”

Seligman’s experiment analyzed the content of nomination acceptance speeches of presidential candidates from 1948 through 1984. Using the Content Analysis of Verbatim Explanations (CAVE) method, Seligman et al. demonstrated that pessimism can be statistically quantified in individuals, as well as across time and cultures. Their results accurately postdicted 90% of those presidential elections, and statistically demonstrated that Americans tend to choose a candidate whose nomination acceptance speech is more optimistic than his opponent’s.

The bottom line of the CAVE for each candidate was a “pessrum” score. Raters scored sentences for pessimism (statements that describe a problem) and rumination (the tendency to dwell on bad conditions). Each parameter of pessimism (permanence, pervasiveness, and personalization) was rated on a 7-point scale for relevant statements. The raters knew nothing about the sentences they were rating.

Seligman’s experiment relied on acceptance speeches to understand history. However, the CAVE method, blind and without context, could be used to predict an electoral result. The CAVE below analyzes the final 225 words of Clinton’s and Trump’s recent victory speeches – Clinton in Iowa and Trump in New Hampshire. The 225-word limit is somewhat arbitrary, dictated by the constraints of this essay.

Neither of the brief verbatim explanations above contains a sentence that provides enough information for a pessrum score. (Pessrum is the sum of permanence, pervasiveness, and personalization divided by the number of explanations, plus the number of ruminative sentences.) But these excerpts do yield data. Clinton’s words contain a higher percentage of ruminative sentences (42%:16%) and a higher percentage of self-referrals (6%:1.6%). Relative to total words, Clinton’s excerpt had 2.6 times more ruminative sentences than Trump, and 3.75 times more self-references.

A political speech is a controlled verbalization intended to evoke particular responses. Optimism, we may assume, is routinely faked in political speeches. However, although spinmeisters can control speeches, they cannot control a candidate’s spontaneous verbalizations, as in an emotional acceptance speech. Human personality operates under a powerful expressive force to reveal itself. By the end of a long campaign, a candidate's words have accumulated, and pessrum scores can be derived.

Clinton, Cruz, and Trump campaign slogans

Hillary For America. Is Hillary herself for America? Or is America in need of Hillary? The ambiguity is probably unintentional. This slogan induces a multiple choice response. Both answers signal a campaign primarily about a candidate rather than issues.

Make America Great Again. The implied second-person of Trump’s slogan immediately engages the listener in a call to action, which is inherently optimistic. “Great” is the payoff for the action. “Again” implies an ongoing loss, a negative condition, but it is cited in the service of its remediation.

Trust Ted. This slogan is psychologically disastrous. It makes a personal demand without offering a reward or justification for the demand. In family psychodynamics, when a teenager says, “Trust me” to a parent, or a spouse utters those words to his or her partner, something has probably gone terribly wrong. When a stranger says, “Trust me,” your hand might instinctively pat a pocket to check for your wallet.

The minuscule data (with no statistical significance and not much experimental rigor) show that Donald Trump’s spontaneous speech had a more optimistic and politically effective explanatory style than did Hillary Clinton’s. Americans elect optimistic presidents when all things are equal.

Positive psychology is a branch of social science which focuses on understanding and promoting the trait of optimism. A bedrock notion of positive psychology is that whether one is an optimist or pessimist is determined by one's explanatory style, the way the mind explains bad things which happen to us.

Explanatory style has three dimensions: permanence, pervasiveness, and personalization. Optimists tend to explain bad events as being temporary, “one-off’s” caused by particular circumstances beyond his or her control. Pessimists tend to explain bad events as ongoing, indicative of generalized problems, and they blame themselves.

Psychohistory is the psychological study of historical figures based on their writings, recorded statements, and biographical information. Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents (1929) may be the first major work in psychohistory. Subsequent writings in the field were speculative and psychoanalytical. In "Pessimistic Explanatory Style in the Historical Record", Martin Seligman (widely acknowledged to be the father of positive psychology) changed the game. He hypothesized that optimists are more likely to be elected president than are pessimists. He set out to statistically determine whether, “Other things being equal, people then vote for the candidate who engenders in them more optimistic expectations.”

Seligman’s experiment analyzed the content of nomination acceptance speeches of presidential candidates from 1948 through 1984. Using the Content Analysis of Verbatim Explanations (CAVE) method, Seligman et al. demonstrated that pessimism can be statistically quantified in individuals, as well as across time and cultures. Their results accurately postdicted 90% of those presidential elections, and statistically demonstrated that Americans tend to choose a candidate whose nomination acceptance speech is more optimistic than his opponent’s.

The bottom line of the CAVE for each candidate was a “pessrum” score. Raters scored sentences for pessimism (statements that describe a problem) and rumination (the tendency to dwell on bad conditions). Each parameter of pessimism (permanence, pervasiveness, and personalization) was rated on a 7-point scale for relevant statements. The raters knew nothing about the sentences they were rating.

Seligman’s experiment relied on acceptance speeches to understand history. However, the CAVE method, blind and without context, could be used to predict an electoral result. The CAVE below analyzes the final 225 words of Clinton’s and Trump’s recent victory speeches – Clinton in Iowa and Trump in New Hampshire. The 225-word limit is somewhat arbitrary, dictated by the constraints of this essay.

Neither of the brief verbatim explanations above contains a sentence that provides enough information for a pessrum score. (Pessrum is the sum of permanence, pervasiveness, and personalization divided by the number of explanations, plus the number of ruminative sentences.) But these excerpts do yield data. Clinton’s words contain a higher percentage of ruminative sentences (42%:16%) and a higher percentage of self-referrals (6%:1.6%). Relative to total words, Clinton’s excerpt had 2.6 times more ruminative sentences than Trump, and 3.75 times more self-references.

A political speech is a controlled verbalization intended to evoke particular responses. Optimism, we may assume, is routinely faked in political speeches. However, although spinmeisters can control speeches, they cannot control a candidate’s spontaneous verbalizations, as in an emotional acceptance speech. Human personality operates under a powerful expressive force to reveal itself. By the end of a long campaign, a candidate's words have accumulated, and pessrum scores can be derived.

Clinton, Cruz, and Trump campaign slogans

Hillary For America. Is Hillary herself for America? Or is America in need of Hillary? The ambiguity is probably unintentional. This slogan induces a multiple choice response. Both answers signal a campaign primarily about a candidate rather than issues.

Make America Great Again. The implied second-person of Trump’s slogan immediately engages the listener in a call to action, which is inherently optimistic. “Great” is the payoff for the action. “Again” implies an ongoing loss, a negative condition, but it is cited in the service of its remediation.

Trust Ted. This slogan is psychologically disastrous. It makes a personal demand without offering a reward or justification for the demand. In family psychodynamics, when a teenager says, “Trust me” to a parent, or a spouse utters those words to his or her partner, something has probably gone terribly wrong. When a stranger says, “Trust me,” your hand might instinctively pat a pocket to check for your wallet.

The minuscule data (with no statistical significance and not much experimental rigor) show that Donald Trump’s spontaneous speech had a more optimistic and politically effective explanatory style than did Hillary Clinton’s. Americans elect optimistic presidents when all things are equal.