Friday, December 16, 2005

Book review: Martin Seligman et al., The Optimistic Child

The argument of The Optimistic Child: A Proven Program to Safeguard Children Against Depression and Build Lifelong Resilience--one that is both more and less powerful than Selgiman claims, as I will explain--runs something like this:

  • When people encounter adversity, they are affected by it in varying ways according to the way they explain the adversity to themselves. Seligman (and his research team) call these narratives explanatory styles.
  • People with an optimistic explanatory style characterize adversity as changeable and specific, with behavioral solutions. An optimist explains doing poorly on a math test, for instance, as only one instance with specific causes (such as not studying effectively or enough). The optimist's response to the situation is to focus on behavioral changes (such as studying differently or more) that will produce better results. The pessimist, on the other hand, sees adversity as permanent and personal and responds passively. To a pessimist, the same poor math score will prompt a response such as "I can't do math"; the explanation attributes adversity to an aspect of the person's static character and leaves no room for productive responses.
  • As he explains the previous point, Seligman is careful to contrast his approach with the "self-esteem" movement, which he accuses of fostering falsely happy explanations that actually encourage children to develop pessimism as they perceive the insincerity of their parents and teachers.
  • Returning to the linear argument: depression is marked by a pessimistic explanatory style.
  • People can learn to recognize their own explanations, check their pessimistic self-commentary against reality, and develop a reality-based optimism.
  • When children practiced changing their explanatory styles in studies developed by Seligman and his team in Philadelphia-area schools, those children appeared to enjoy long-term increases in optimism and therefore decreased risk of depression.

This seems to me a compelling argument in many ways. Most importantly, the opening chapters of the book give parents concrete, readily applicable advice about how to speak to children who have just experienced disappointment or failure. My guess is that most parents and other people who work with young children will find those early chapters well worth the small amount of time they require to read.

Most of the latter part of the book describes the Philadelphia experiments in detail and offers many practical materials for helping children identify and modify their explanatory styles. Readers other than parents and child-care workers will probably find themselves skimming or skipping much of this material; the meat of the argument is clearly stated early on.

I said above that I find this argument both less and more powerful than it claims to be. It is less powerful because Seligman does not articulate the extent to which the book itself is a piece of optimistic explanation of an adverse phenomenon, adolescent depression, that lends itself only partly to that optimism. Seligman only occasionally acknowledges the biologial components of depression--precisely the permanent, personal factors that would emerge in a pessimistic explanatory style. The data presented in the book is impressive, but Seligman does very little to help parents and teachers cope with the significant incidences of pessimism and depression that persist even in the groups trained by Seligman's team itself. As this book points out (very late), there is some evidence that mild pessimists perceive situations more accurately than optimists, and the book does little to counter suspicions that much pessimism and depression lurks just to the side of its explanatory model. This is not to take anything away from the remarkable achivement of offering any demonstrably effective techniques for countering adolescent depression, only to say that by the authors' own account, that effectiveness is limited more than the book's tone sometimes implies.

Those concerns arise only in the specific context of depression prevention, however. Seligman's argument is more powerful than it claims to be in the generality of its application. This book, quite unintentionally, explains concretely how teachers, managers, and colleagues can be simultaneously demanding and encouraging. I have said of my own best teachers that they managed to convey great faith in their students even, or especially, when holding them strictly to high academic standards. (I have seen a highly respected professor's response to a student paper opening, "I know you can write better than this!" Note that this is an optimistic statement, harshly critical of the piece by way of praising the person.) The same is true of inspiring managers and colleagues, of course; few characteristics are as socially valuable as the ability to speak frankly about ways that work can improve in the context of sincere personal support.

I therefore come to this odd evaluation of The Optimistic Child: it is a good book about childhood depression, though not as good as it might be. It is a much better book, especially in its opening chapters, about how to talk to people, from students to friends. I recommend that section highly.

1 comment:

Jackie Brown said...


This sounds like a great book, and I agree completely (without having read it yet) that it might be generally applicable to folks like ourselves who spend a great deal of time trying to both demanding and encouraging.*

However, I have to chastise you for something you wrote in the section explaining your view of why his argument is less powerful than it might be:

. Seligman only occasionally acknowledges the biologial (sic) components of depression--precisely the permanent, personal factors that would emerge in a pessimistic explanatory style.

I take the point of your argument that Seligman has largely ignored cases where his method hasn't worked; however, you've fallen into a common practice of describing "permanent" features of personality as "biological." Although this is not apparent in your explanation, many would further conclude that these permanent features are "genetic" and thus all "biological" features are irreversable. We're doomed, doomed, doomed.

Now I'm not accusing you of making these latter, flawed, conclusions. However, I think we can avoid that common path by thinking of everything we do as "biological," and our present selves -- in this case a behavioral phenotype -- as the endpoint of a developmental process with many interacting causal influences. Alternate developmental pathways may be resistant to change after certain points, no matter what the cause for two individuals having taken different pathways earlier in development. Or they may not be. By avoiding the assumptions of biological determinism, we might find alternate ways to address those not influenced by Seligman's methods, perhaps by identifying how different influences (social or pharmacological) act at different stages of development. We might also realize that certain early social environments create us biologically, including personality features that a very resistant to change. We're very far from that now, it seems, but Seligman's work seems like an excellent argument for better understanding the influence of early social environments on this process.

Thanks for stimulating my Sunday morning, my friend!


*My favorite example from a weekly response paper returned to me by a respected anthropology Professor: "Jonathan, this is not up to your usual stuff. Etc. . . ." His comments were always typed in red on the back of the paper, I suspect from a old manual typewriter. The next paper was much better.