Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Blame, Fault, and Other Slippery Words

A line from the book, p. 208 (I'm nearly through with it now and will soon stop touting it as though I'm getting paid to advertise it, though I do love it and recommend it to anyone who wants to dog-ear every page) gave me pause:

"Optimists explain successes with chronic, global, and personal causes and failures with transient, specific, and universal ones. Pessimists do the reverse. Optimists say things like 'I got an A' and 'She gave me a C'. Pessimists say things like 'I got a C' and 'He gave me an A'. And it is the pessimists who are candidates for depression."

Hmm... I know that the author's not trying to be exhaustive here, but I think there's more to it. There is definitely a large subset of pessimists who base their pessimism on the belief that the entire world is at fault, rather than even consider that they are. And there are an equal number of what the author might call 'optimists', taking proud credit for their successes, that are simply masquerading, and privately, even unconsciously, harbor doubt that they really did anything to deserve them.

I'll anticipate the obvious argument (I know it's coming) that these 'optimistic' masqueraders shouldn't be labeled optimists just because they're good actors. They should be labeled pessimists as they really are inside. Fine. But what about the pessimists who blame the world rather than themselves? We all know these people. There's probably one whining at you right now. He probably failed at asking out a hot girl because the hot girl was stupid and wouldn't recognize a manly sensitive studly catch of a guy if he was dropped in her lap (which, the complainer asks us to believe, he was). Or maybe she's telling you that she didn't get a promotion because her competition was some slut who sexual-favored her way up the ladder instead of working for it like an honest, hardworking sort of person (that would be her, of course).

Schwartz came into this line not too long after running through a bunch of studies about how animals who believe they are helpless are more depressed, and human infants who activate their crib mobiles with a turn of the head are more interested and happier with their mobiles than babies whose mobiles were activated by another baby turning their head. And old people in nursing homes who are given plants to take care or are happier than those who have their caregivers take care of the plants for them. The point, I think, was to prove that control, or at least a belief, mistaken or not, that one has control, makes one happier.

And then he turns around and says that people who are pessimists tend to be depressed and people who take the blame for their problems tend to be pessimists. Isn't taking the blame taking responsibility? And isn't taking responsibility supposed to tend oneself towards being happier? And isn't being happier the opposite of being a pessimist?

In this article about a talk by Martin Seligman, he goes deeper into the difference between responsibility and blame, and the difference between blaming the world and accepting that the world is sometimes just not in the right place for you at the moment. He also makes a big distinction between blaming yourself for events you have the ability to change and blaming yourself for being a specific, unchangable type of person. I wish Schwartz had inserted this article straight into his book.


Nor said...

i'm not sure i can explain why yet, but the line "accepting that the world is sometimes just not in the right place for you at the moment." makes me incredibly sad.

Hannah said...

Maybe because if you took the 'in' out, it would read 'accepting that the world is sometimes just not the right place for you at the moment. And that is depressing, because where are you supposed to escape to if the world isn't where you belong?

Dan R said...

I am an "I got a C; he gave me an A" kind of guy. Maybe it's because in school I didn't expect much or put much effort into many of my papers, so I was sometimes surprised that they graded me with an A.

I don't know of pessimistic person is the right label, but they're definitely people who are prone to depression and I think sometimes even depressant prone people can be optimistic.