Skip to main content Skip to main content

Discovering Psychology: Updated Edition

Motivation and Emotion

Motivation and Emotion is the twelfth program in the Discovering Psychology series. Based on the early research of Sigmund Freud and Abraham Maslow, this program explores the sources of motivation, causes of behavior, and interplay between motivation and action. It examines societal and individual motivation, sexual motivation, and cumulative effects of optimism and pessimism in human life.

View Transcript

Interview Excerpt: Martin Seligman on Optimism and Pessimism

Dr. Martin Seligman describes how attitudes of optimism and pessimism influence job performance.

In our research on the roles of optimism and pessimism, we conducted studies in the workplace. We looked for a demanding field in which there were a lot of challenges, frustration, and rejection. The question was: “What type of person copes with that kind of situation best?”

We tested 15,000 applicants for life insurance sales, a difficult job with frequent rejection and a high drop-out rate. We measured, by questionnaire, the explanatory style (a metric of optimism and pessimism) of the regular qualified people who were hired. Also included was a special force of 129 people who failed the industry test — who wouldn’t normally have been hired — but who tested very well on optimism.

Our research followed both groups for two years and concluded with two basic findings. First, within the regular qualified group that was hired, the optimists significantly outsold the pessimists. Second, the special force of optimists who failed the industry test outsold everyone.

Within the American workplace, optimists overall stay with difficult and challenging jobs, while pessimists seem to do worse than predicted and even give up. There is an interesting parallel in academics and athletics. When subjects were given a lower grade in a class or a slower recorded time in an athletic event, thereby stimulating defeat, the optimists rose to the occasion and did better the second time around while the pessimists did worse.

This evidence supports the theory that there are two factors in human potential. One is our ability and the other is our optimism or pessimism. We’re showing that there is a science to the interplay between our attitudes and our actions.

For more about this research, visit The Martin Seligman Research Alliance website at the University of Pennsylvania.


Addiction: The physical and mental state of dependence on a substance or stimulus, to the point where withdrawal symptoms occur whenever the substance is not present in the body.

Explanatory Style: How individuals describe their successes and failures to others, indicating an optimistic or pessimistic bent, which researchers believe tells much about the teller’s psychological state.

Genetic Variability: The biological reality that offspring of any given species will differ from its parents, and that some offspring will survive by adapting to changing conditions.

Motivation: The process of starting, directing, and maintaining physical and psychological activities; includes preferences for one activity over another and persistence of responses.

Phobia: An intense, irrational aversion to something; an overwhelming fear of an objectively harmless stimulus that interferes with normal functioning.