Realistic optimism

Sandra Schneider, PhDI am very fond of a paper by Dr. Sandra Schneider about realistic optimism, not the least because she works the words “warm fuzziness” into the title of an academic paper. How’s that for courage!

Schneider, S. (2001). In search of realistic optimism: Meaning, knowledge, and warm fuzziness. American Psychologist. 56, 3, 250-263.

She bases her model on a clear distinction between fuzzy knowledge (“you don’t know the facts”) and fuzzy meaning (“you have latitude in interpretations”).

Optimism is not a good way to deal with fuzzy knowledge. If you don’t know your cholesterol numbers, it doesn’t make sense to just assume you are safe from cardiac disease. Dealing with fuzzy knowledge by assuming the best possible set of facts is dangerous — and why we sometimes equate optimists with ostriches who hide their heads in the sand.

However there are many things that happen in life where people have a range of possible interpretations, all of which may be reasonable ways of making meaning out of the circumstances. Someone walks past me in the hallway without greeting me. I could choose me-centric interpretations: He doesn’t like me. He doesn’t think I’m worth acknowledging. I’m so easy to overlook. Or I could choose other-centric interpretations. Perhaps he was thinking about something else. Maybe he didn’t remember my name and didn’t want to risk being embarrassed. Maybe he doesn’t like to greet people in general. In this instance, selecting a me-centric interpretation would make me miserable, while selecting an other-centric interpretation has no emotional load for me. Realistic optimists make a practice of selecting interpretations that contribute to their own well-being.

Here’s another example of fuzzy meaning based on a situation that is discussed in the context of cynicism in Dr. Joel Wade’s blog:


Written by Dr. Joel Wade

Friday, 03 February 2006

The other day, my wife and I were having lunch, and an acquaintance from our kid’s school came by. The first words out of her mouth were: “How unusual, a husband and wife actually sitting together and talking with each other.”

The acquaintance has chosen to interpret the situation as something odd — an exception to the rule — and thus highlights the opposite — separation and distance between spouses — to herself. Alternatively, she could have interpreted it as yet more evidence of marital warmth — and thus highlighted what was before her, rather than the opposite.

Dr. Schneider makes a strong argument that realism and optimism do not have to be in conflict. When you have interpretative latitude, you can realistically choose more positive interpretations. She suggests three ways that can work:

  1. leniency toward the past (the benefit of the doubt principle)
  2. being alert to what’s positive in the present (the appreciate the moment principle)
  3. choosing to see the future as a challenge and opportunity instead of chore or problem (the window of opportunity principle)

I guess I’m fond of Dr. Schneider’s argument because I find that the distinction between fuzzy knowledge and fuzzy meaning really resonates with my friends, family, and clients. They can see the distinction between not knowing the facts and not knowing the meaning. It makes sense to them that they can’t assume facts line up just they way they want, but their choices of meaning make a difference to their outlook on the world.


Filed under Meaning, Optimism

3 responses to “Realistic optimism

  1. Pingback: Reflections on Marriage « Positive Psychology Reflections

  2. Pingback: Reflections on Marriage Part 2 - One thing to know « Positive Psychology Reflections

  3. Pingback: Positive Psychology for New Parents: 5 Tips | The Psychology of Wellbeing

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