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because you were tired of the same old drive. As you drive this unfamiliar route, you
actually occurred, especially
are involved in an accident. It is likely that you will think, “If only I had stuck to my when we can easily imagine
usual route, none of this would have happened!” You play out a positive alternative a more positive outcome.
scenario (no accident) that contrasts with what occurred. The inclination of people to
do these counterfactual mental simulations is widespread, particularly when dramatic
events occur (Wells & Gavanski, 1989).
Generally, we are most likely to use counterfactual thinking if we perceive events
to be changeable (Miller, Turnbull, & McFarland, 1989; Roese & Olson, 1997). As a
rule, we perceive dramatic or exceptional events (taking a new route home) as more
mutable than unexceptional ones (taking your normal route). Various studies have
found that it is the mutability of the event”the event that didnʼt have to be”that
Social Psychology
90

affects the perception of causality (Gavanski & Wells, 1989; Kahneman & Tversky,
1982). Peopleʼs reactions to their own misfortunes and those of others may be deter-
mined, in great part, by the counterfactual alternatives evoked by those misfortunes
(Roese & Olson, 1997).


Positive Psychology: Optimism, Cognition,
Health, and Life
Social psychology, after years of studying interesting but rather negative behaviors
such as violence and aggression, prejudice, and evil (Zimbardo, 2005), has turned its
positive psychology eyes, like Mrs. Robinson, to a more uplifting image, and that image is called positive
The area of psychology psychology. Prodded by the arguments of Martin Seligman (Simonton & Baumeister,
that focuses on what makes 2005), psychologists over the past decade have begun to study what makes people happy,
people happy and how
how optimism and happiness affect how people think and act. The ¬ndings suggest that
optimism and happiness
one manifestation of happiness”an optimistic outlook on life”has rather profound
affect how people think
affects on our health, longevity, and cognition.
and act.

Optimism and Cognition
We seem to maintain an optimistic and con¬dent view of our abilities to navigate our
social world even though we seem to make a lot of errors. Perhaps this is because our
metacognition The way metacognition”the way we think about thinking”is primarily optimistic. We know
we think about thinking, that in a wide variety of tasks, people believe they are above average, a logical impos-
which is primarily optimistic. sibility because, except in Lake Wobegon, Garrison Keillorʼs mythical hometown,
not everyone can be above average. So letʼs examine the possibility that the pursuit of
happiness, or at least optimism and con¬dence, is a fundamental factor in the way we
construct our social world.
Metcalfe (1998) examined the case for cognitive optimism and determined from
her own research and that of others that in most cognitive activities individuals express
a consistent pattern of overcon¬dence. Metcalfe found, among other results, that indi-
viduals think they can solve problems that they cannot; that they are very con¬dent they
can produce an answer when they are in fact about to make an error; that they think
they know the answer to a question when in fact they do not; and they think the answer
is on the “tip of their tongue” when there is no right or wrong answer.
It is fair to say that optimists and pessimists do in fact see the world quite differ-
ently. In a very clever experiment, Issacowitz (2005) used eye tracking to test the idea
that pessimists pay more attention to negative stimuli than do optimists. College stu-
dents were asked to track visual stimuli (skin cancers, matched schematic drawings,
and neutral faces). The experimenter measured the amount of ¬xation time”the time
students spent tracking the stimuli. Optimists showed “selective inattention” to the skin
cancers. Optimists avert their gaze from the negative stimuli so they may, in fact, wear
“rose-colored glasses,” or rather they may take their glasses off when negative stimuli
are in their ¬eld of vision. Such is the gaze of the optimist, says Issacowitz (2005).

Optimism and Health
We know that optimism is sometimes extraordinarily helpful in human affairs. Laughter
and a good mood appear to help hospitalized patients cope with their illnesses (Taylor
& Gollwitzer, 1995). An optimistic coping style also appears to help individuals recover
Chapter 3 Social Perception: Understanding Other People 91

more rapidly and more effectively from coronary bypass surgery. Research demonstrates
that optimistic bypass patients had fewer problems after surgery than pessimistic patients
(Scheir et al., 1986). Following their surgery, the optimists reported more positive family,
sexual, recreational, and health-related activities than did pessimistic patients.
positive illusions Beliefs
Many individuals react to threatening events by developing positive illusions,
that include unrealistically
beliefs that include unrealistically optimistic notions about their ability to handle the
optimistic notions about
threat and create a positive outcome (Taylor, 1989). These positive illusions are adap-
individuals™ ability to handle
tive in the sense that ill people who are optimistic will be persistent and creative in their a threat and create a
attempts to cope with the psychological and physical threat of disease. The tendency to positive outcome.
display positive illusions has been shown in individuals who have tested positive for
the HIV virus but have not yet displayed any symptoms (Taylor, Kemeny, Aspinwall, &
Schneider, 1992). These individuals often expressed the belief that they had developed
immunity to the virus and that they could “¬‚ush” the virus from their systems. They
acted on this belief by paying close attention to nutrition and physical ¬tness.
However, the cognitive optimism discussed by Metcalfe is different from that
of AIDS or cancer patients. In these instances, optimism is both a coping strategy (I
can get better, and to do so, I must follow the medical advice given to me) and a self-
protective or even self-deceptive shield. Metcalfe argued that the cognitive optimism
seen in everyday life, however, is not self-deceptive but simply a faulty, overoptimistic
methodology. The result of this optimistic bias in cognition is that people often quit on a
problem because they think they will get the answer, or they convince themselves they
have really learned new material when in fact they have not. Optimism may simply be
the way we do our cognitive daily business.
Positive emotions seem to not only help us ¬ght disease, but some evidence sug-
gests that these positive, optimistic emotions may forestall the onset of certain diseases.
Richman and her colleagues studied the effects of hope and curiosity on hypertension,
diabetes mellitus, and respiratory infections. They reasoned that if negative emotions
negatively affected disease outcomes, then positive ones may be helpful. As is well
known, high levels of anxiety are related to a much higher risk of hypertension (high
blood pressure). This research studied 5,500 patients, ages 55 to 69. All patients were
given scales that measured “hope” and “curiosity.” Independently of other factors that
affected the health of the patients, there was a strong relationship between positive
emotions and health. The authors hypothesize that the experience of positive emotions
bolsters the immune system. Also, it is reasonable to assume that people with hope and
curiosity and other positive emotions may very well take steps to protect their health
(Richman, Kubzansky, Kawachi, Choo, & Bauer, 2005). One way of looking at these
studies is to observe that happy people are resilient. They take steps to protect their
health, and they respond in a positive manner to threats and disappointments.

Optimism and Happiness
Diener and Diener (1996) found that about 85% of Americans rate their lives as above
average in satisfaction. More than that, 86% of the population place themselves in the
upper 35% of contentment with their lives (Klar & Gilardi, 1999; Lykken & Tellegren,
1996). It is clearly quite crowded in that upper 35%. Although 86% obviously cannot
all be in the top 35%, Klar and Gilardi (1999) suggest that people feel this way because
they have unequal access to other peopleʼs states of happiness compared to their own.
Therefore, when a person says that he or she is really happy, it is dif¬cult for him or her
to anticipate that others may be quite so happy, and therefore most (although certainly
not all) people may conclude that they are well above average.
Social Psychology
92

The pursuit of happiness, enshrined no less in the Declaration of Independence,
is a powerful if occasionally elusive motive and goal. But what factors account for
happiness? Can it be the usual suspects: money, sex, baseball? Edward Dienerʼs long-
time research concerning happiness suggests that subjective factors (feeling in control,
feeling positive about oneself) are more important than objective factors such as wealth
(Diener, Suh, Lucas, & Smith, 1999). Yes, wealth counts, but not as much as one would
think. For example, one of Dienerʼs studies showed that Americans earning millions of
dollars are only slightly happier than those who are less fortunate. Perhaps part of the
reason those with more are not signi¬cantly happier than those with less is that bigger
and better “toys” simply satiate, they gratify no more, and so one needs more and more
and better and better to achieve a positive experience (Lyubomirsky & Ross, 1999).
Oneʼs ¬rst automobile, as an example, may bring greater grati¬cation than the one we
buy if and when money is no object.
Knutson and his colleagues have examined how money affects our happiness.
Knutson is a neuroscientist and is therefore interested in how the brain reacts both to the
anticipation of obtaining money and actually having the money (Kuhnen & Knutson,
2005). The brain scans revealed that anticipation of ¬nancial rewards makes one happier
than actually obtaining that reward. You may be just as happy anticipating future rewards
as actually getting those rewards, and it saves the trouble. Money doesnʼt buy bliss, but
it does buy a chunk of happiness. How much of a chunk? Economists have reported that
money and sex may be partially fungible commodities (Blanch¬‚ower & Oswald, 2004).
These researchers found that if you are having sex only once a month and you get lucky
and increase it to twice a week, it is as good as making an extra $50,000 a year. This does
not necessarily mean that you would give up $50,000 to have four times as much sex.
Lyubomirsky and Ross (1999) examined how happy and unhappy individuals dealt
with situations in which they either obtained goals they wanted or were rejected or pre-
cluded from reaching those goals, such as admission to a particular college. In one study,
these researchers examined how individuals dealt with either being accepted or rejected
from colleges. Figure 3.5 shows what happened. Notice that happy participants (self-
rated) show a signi¬cant increase in the desirability of their chosen college (the one that
accepted them, and they in turn accepted), whereas unhappy (self-rated) participants show
no difference after being accepted and, in fact, show a slight decrease in the desirability
ratings of their chosen college. Furthermore, happy seniors sharply decreased the desir-
ability of colleges that rejected them, whereas their unhappy counterparts did not.
These results, according to Lyubomirsky and Ross (1999), illustrate the way happy
and unhappy individuals respond to the consequences of choices that they made and
were made for them (being accepted or rejected). Happy seniors seemed to make the best
of the world: If they were accepted to a college, well then, that was the best place for
them. If they were rejected, then maybe it wasnʼt such a good choice after all. Unhappy
people seem to live in a world of unappealing choices, and perhaps it seems to them that
it matters not which alternative they pick or is chosen for them. It also appears that if
unhappy people are distracted or stopped from ruminating”from focusing on the dark
state of their world”they tend to respond like happy people: Obtained goals are given
high ratings; unobtainable options are downgraded.
It may be a clich© but even a clich© can be true: Americans are generally opti-
mistic. Chang and Asakawa (2003) found that at least European Americans held an
optimistic bias (they expected that good things are more likely to happen to them)
whereas Japanese had a pessimistic bias, expecting negative events. This cultural dif-
ference seems to project the notion that many Americans expect the best, while many
Japanese expect the worst.
Chapter 3 Social Perception: Understanding Other People 93




Figure 3.5 Student
ratings of their chosen
The Effects of Distressing and Joyful Events on Future Happiness
school to which they were
Lou Gehrig, the great Yankee ¬rst baseman af¬‚icted with amyotrophic lateral sclero- rejected and from which
sis (ALS; also known as Lou Gehrigʼs disease), told a full house at Yankee Stadium they were rejected before
in July 1939 that, all and all, he considered himself the luckiest man on the face of the and after acceptance or
earth. Gehrig spoke bravely and movingly, but surely he must have thought his luck rejection.
had turned bad. Adapted from Lyubormirsky and Ross (1999).
Perhaps not, according to Gilbert and his associates. Gilbert suggested that there is
a “psychological immune” system, much like its physiological counterpart, that protects
us from the ravages of bacterial and viral invasions. The psychological immune system
¬ghts off doom and gloom, often under the most adverse circumstances (Gilbert, Pinel,
Wilson, Blumberg, & Wheatley, 1998).
In the classic movie Casablanca (which, no doubt, none of you may have seen)
Humphrey Bogartʼs character “Rick” gallantly (foolishly, I thought) gives up Ingrid
Bergman so that she can stay with her Nazi-¬ghting husband. Rick himself was heading
down to Brazzaville to join the French ¬ghting the Nazis (this was World War II, for
those of you who have taken a history course). Will she regret giving up the dashing
Rick? Was she happier with her husband? Gilbert (2006) suggests that either choice
would have made her happy. Gilbert asks, Is it really possible that the now-deceased
actor Christopher Reeve was really better off in some ways after his terrible and tragic
accident than before, as Reeve claimed?
Gilbert says, yes, it is possible.
Gilbert and his colleagues suggested that the psychological immune system works
best when it is unattended, for when we become aware of its functioning, it may cease
to work. Gilbert notes that we may convince ourselves that we never really cared for
our ex-spouse, but that protective cover wonʼt last long if someone reminds us of the
47 love sonnets that we forgot we wrote. In an initial series of studies, Gilbert and
colleagues asked their participants to predict their emotional reactions to both good
and bad events. First, the subjects reported on their happiness. All individuals were
asked if they were involved in a romantic relationship and whether they had experi-
enced a breakup of a relationship. Those in a relationship who had not experienced
a breakup (“luckies”) were asked to predict how happy they would be 2 months
after a breakup. Those who had been in a romantic relationship but were no longer
Social Psychology
94

(“leftovers”) were asked to report how happy they were. Others not in a relationship
(“loners”) were asked to predict how happy they would be 6 months after becoming
involved romantically.
First, we ¬nd that being in a romantic relationship means greater happiness than not
being in one. Loners thought that 6 months after being in a relationship, they would be
as happy as people in a romantic relationship. So loners were accurate in their predic-
tions, because people in relationship report as much happiness as loners predicted they
would experience if they were in a 6-month relationship. But, most interestingly, luckies
were no happier than were leftovers. Luckies thought that if their relationship broke up,
they would be very unhappy. But, those who experienced a breakup”the archly named
leftovers”were in fact pretty happy, so the luckies were wrong.
The college students in the ¬rst study made grave predictions about the state of
their happiness after the end of a romantic involvement. Gilbert and colleagues found
that professors denied tenure and voters whose candidate lost an important election all
overestimated the depth of their future unhappiness because of the negative outcome
and, in fact, about 3 months later all were much at the same state of happiness that
existed before the negative event. Indeed, Gilbertʼs research suggests that even more
harmful events yield the same results.
One of the curious aspects of optimism is that we donʼt seem to quite know what will
make us happy or how happy something will make us feel. Wilson, Meyers, and Gilbert
(2003) reported that people may overestimate the importance of future events on their
happiness. For example, these investigators found that supporters of George W. Bush
overestimated how happy they would be when Mr. Bush won the election. Similarly, there
is a “retrospective impact bias,” which refers to overestimating the impact of past events
on present happiness. People overestimate how durable their negative reactions will be
(the “durability bias”) and donʼt take into account that the psychological immune system
tends to regulate our emotional state. Rather, they may explain their ability to bounce
back afterward by saying something like, “I can deal with things better than I thought,” to
explain why they mispredicted their long-range emotional reactions. It appears that most
of us can rely on this immune system to maintain a degree of stability in the face of lifeʼs
ups and downs. Much research remains to be done, but it may be that there are signi¬cant
individual differences in the workings of the psychological immune system, and that may
account for different perceptions of happiness among individuals (Gilbert, 2006).

The Incompetent, the Inept: Are They Happy?
Kruger and Dunning (1999) found in a series of studies that incompetent people are
at times supremely con¬dent in their abilities, perhaps even more so than competent
individuals. It seems that the skills you need to behave competently are the same skills
you need to recognize incompetence. If incompetent people could recognize incom-
petence, they would be competent. Life is indeed unfair. For example, students who
scored lowest in a test of logic were most likely to wildly overestimate how well they
did. Those scoring in the lowest 12% of the test-takers estimated that they scored in
the low 60s percentiles. In tests of grammar and humor, the less competent individuals
again overestimated their performance.
The less competent test-takers, when given the opportunity to compare their per-
formance with high-performing individuals, did not recognize competence: That is, the
inept thought that their own performance measured up. The competent subjects, in con-
trast, when confronted with better performances, revised estimates of their own work in
light of what they accurately saw as really competent performances by others.
Chapter 3 Social Perception: Understanding Other People 95

These results, although intriguing, may be limited by a couple of factors. It may
be that the nature of the tasks (which involved logic, grammar, and humor) was rather

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