This part of the book Learned optimism shows how optimism can be influenced by a political system.
Explanatory Style Across Frontiers
IN 1983 I WENT to Munich to attend the Congress of the International Society for the Study of Behavioral Development, and on the second day I fell into conversation with an intense young German graduate student who introduced herself simply as Ele. “Let me tell you the idea I had when you were talking this morning about the CAVE technique,” she said. “But first let me ask a question. Do you think that the benefits of optimism and the dangers of pessimism and helplessness and passivity reflect universal laws of human nature, or do they hold true only in our kind of society Westernized, I mean, like America and West Germany?” That was a good question. I told her I sometimes wondered myself whether or not our concern with control and with optimism was conditioned by advertising on the one hand and the Puritan ethic on the other. Depression, I said, doesn’t seem to occur in non-Western cultures at anything like the epidemic rate it does in Westernized ones. Perhaps cultures that aren’t obsessed with achievement don’t suffer the effects of helplessness and pessimism the way we do. Perhaps, I suggested, lessons from the animal kingdom were relevant. It isn’t just Westernized men and women who show the signs of depression when they experience loss and helplessness. Both in nature and in the laboratory, animals respond to helplessness with symptoms amazingly parallel to those of Westernized human beings. Chimpanzees reacting to the death of other chimpanzees; rats reacting to inescapable shock; goldfish, dogs, even cockroaches act very much like we do when we fail. I suspect, I said, that when human cultures don’t respond to loss and helplessness with depression, it’s because the punishment of endless poverty, of thousands of years of having two out of three children die young, has beaten the natural response of depression out of the culture. “I don’t believe that Westernized human beings have been propagandized into depression, brainwashed into the ethic of control,” I said. “But to say that the desire for control and the devastating response to helplessness are natural is not to say that optimism works universally.” Consider success at work and in politics, for example, I said. Optimism works well for American life-insurance salesmen and for candidates who want to be president of the United States. But it’s hard to imagine the understated Englishman reacting well to the never-give-up salesman. Or the dour Swedish voter electing an Eisenhower. Or the Japanese taking kindly to someone who always blames others for his failures. I said I thought the learned-optimism approach probably would, in fact, provide relief from the torment of depression in these cultures but that optimism would have to be adapted to other styles in the workplace or in politics. The trouble was, though, that not much work had been done yet on examining how optimism works from one culture to the next. “But tell me,” I asked, “what was that idea you had while I was lecturing on the CAVE technique?” “I think I have found a way,” said Ele, “to discover how much hope and despair there is across cultures and across history. For instance, is there such a thing as a national explanatory style, one that predicts how a nation or a people will behave in crisis? Does one particular form of government engender more hope than another?” Ele’s questions were great, I replied, but almost unanswerable. Let’s say we learned, by “CA VEing” things they wrote or said or sang, that Bulgarians have a better explanatory style than Navajos do. That result would be uninterpretable.-It might be more macho to say optimistic things in one culture than in the other. The peoples experience different weather, have different histories and gene pools, live on different continents. Any difference in explanatory style between Bulgarians and Navajos could be explained in a thousand ways other than a difference in the underlying amount of hope or despair. “If you do the wrong sort of comparison,” Ele said, “yes. But I wasn’t thinking of Navajos and Bulgarians. I was thinking of a much more similar pair of cultures-East and West Berlin. They are in the same place, they have the same weather, they speak the same dialect, emotional words and gestures mean the same thing, they have the same history up until 1945. They differ only in political system since then. They are like identical twins reared apart for forty years. They seem a perfect way of asking if despair is different across political systems-with everything else held constant.” The next day at the congress, I told a professor from Zurich about this creative graduate student I’d met the day before. After I described her and mentioned that she called herself Ele, he told me she was the Princess Gabriele zu Oettingen-Oettingen und Oettingen-Spielberg, one of Bavaria’s most promising young scientists. My conversation with Gabriele continued the next day over tea. I said I agreed that East versus West Berlin differences in explanatory style-if found-could be meaningfully interpreted as stemming only from communism versus capitalism. But how, I asked, could she actually get the material to compare? She couldn’t just cross the Wall and hand out optimism questionnaires to a random sample of East Berliners. “Not in the present political climate,” she agreed. (Andropov was then premier of the Soviet Union.) “But all I need is writings from both cities, writings that are exactly comparable. They have to be about the same events, occurring at the same time. And they should be neutral eventsnot politics or economics or mental health. And I’ve thought of just the thing,” she said. “In about four months, the winter Olympics will take place in Yugoslavia. They will be reported in great detail in both East and West Berlin newspapers. Like most sports reporting, they will be filled with causal statements from athletes and reporters, about victories and about defeats. I want to CA VE them in their entirety and see which culture is more pessimistic. This will be a demonstration that the quantity of hope can be compared across cultures.” I asked what her predictions were. She expected that East German explanatory style, at least in the sports pages, would be more optimistic. The East Germans, after all, were an outstanding Olympic nation, and the newspapers were emphatically organs of the state. Part of their job was to keep morale up. This wasn’t my prediction, but I kept my silence. Over the next three months I had several trans-Atlantic phone conversations with Gabriele and received a number of letters from her. She was worried about the mechanics of getting the newspapers from East Berlin, since it was sometimes difficult to take written material across the Wall. She had arranged to have a mechanic friend in East Berlin send her worthless kitchen objects, broken cups and bent forks, by mail-wrapped in newspaper, the sports pages of course. But this proved to be unnecessary. During the Olympics, she was able to walk through the Berlin checkpoints unchallenged, carrying as many East Berlin newspapers as she wanted. Next came the labor, combing through the three West Berlin and three East Berlin newspapers for the entire duration of the Olympics, extracting and rating the event-explanation quotes. Gabriele found 381 quotes. Here are some of the athletes’ and reporters’ optimistic explanations. An ice racer could not stand the pace because “on this day there was no morning sun to cover the ice with a mirror-like ice film” Negative event (4); a skier fell because “an avalanche of snow from nearby trees covered the visor of her helmet” Negative event (4); athletes were not afraid because “we just know that we will be stronger than our competitors” Positive event (16). These were among the pessimistic explanations: A disaster came because “she is in such bad shape” Negative event (17); “He had to hold back tears. His hope for a medal had gone” Negative event (17); an athlete succeeded because “our competitors had been drinking all night before” Positive event (3). But who made the optimistic statements and who made the pessimistic ones? The answers were a complete surprise to Gabriele. The East German statements were much more pessimistic than the West German ones. What made this finding even more remarkable was how well the East Germans did in the games. The East Germans won twenty-four medals and the West Germans only four. So the East Berlin papers had many more good events to report: Indeed, 61 percent of the East’s explanations were about good events for the East and only 47 percent of the West’s were about good events for the West. Nevertheless, the tone of East Berlin’s reportage was much bleaker than that of West Berlin’s. “I’m astonished by my results,” Gabriele told me. “As strong as they are, I’m not going to believe them until I find some other way to see if East Berliners are more pessimistic and depressed than West Berliners. I’ve tried getting accurate suicide and hospital statistics from East Berlin to compare to West Berlin, but of course, I can’t get them.” Gabriele’s Ph.D. was not in psychology but in human ethology, a branch of biology that deals with observing people in the natural environment and noting in great detail what they do. It started with Konrad Lorenz’s observations of ducklings that had “imprinted” on him and then followed him around-they had formed the conviction that he was their mother. His careful observations of nature soon branched out to systematic
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