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Previous work shows that optimism supports good overall well-being results, while pessimism is associated with health risks. For the first time, researchers have studied the links between optimism and pessimism and cognitive ability in adulthood. They concluded that higher optimism and lower pessimism are associated with higher thinking abilities in young adults, and higher pessimism is associated with lower memory test scores in older adults.
Dispositional optimism and pessimism are defined as personality traits characterized by a tendency to expect positive or negative results in life. Studies in psychology and the social sciences show that there is a correlation between dispositional affect (positive and negative) and aspects such as personality, decision-making, negotiation, psychological resilience, and coping with stressful life events. In addition, optimism is said to be good for health and well-being, while pessimism is said to be associated with health risks.
Other studies – based on theories of intellectual investment – also show that certain personality traits influence the development of cognitive abilities. For example, an optimistic individual will be forced to solve more problems, invest more time and effort in learning and cognitively demanding situations. ” Joy drives individuals to play, create new ideas and push boundaries, which supports intellectual and creative abilities “, Finnish scientists report. ” In contrast, negative emotionality narrows an individual’s repertoire of thoughts and actions to prepare him for quick decisions in a threatening situation. “.
The connection between optimism, pessimism and cognitive abilities: for the first time in adults
Despite previous research findings, few studies have addressed the relationship between dispositional optimism and pessimism on the one hand, and cognitive abilities such as reasoning, problem solving, verbal skills, and memory on the other. This is the first study on adult population samples – three studies have previously analyzed this correlation in adolescents.
The researchers performed two tests at different ages: the first on a sample of 383 participants aged 26 years (certainly reaching a relatively stable level of cognitive ability) and the second on 5042 participants aged 46 years. In the first test, seven abilities were analyzed with respect to optimism or pessimism: reasoning, vocabulary, verbal fluency, fine motor skills, selective attention, impulse control, and memory. In the second, only memory was considered. In order not to distort the results, confusing variables such as gender, participants’ level of education, mother’s level of education and depression were included in the analysis.
Among the 26-year results of this study showed that higher dispositional optimism was consistently associated with lower dispositional pessimism, lower depression, higher levels of education, and higher scores in reasoning tests. On the contrary, higher dispositional pessimism correlated with lower educational attainment, higher depression, and lower thinking, vocabulary, and motor skills.
Pessimism is associated with lower scores in memory tests in middle-aged adults
Similar results were found in 46-year-olds, in whom higher dispositional optimism correlated with lower dispositional pessimism and lower depression, to a moderate extent. Higher dispositional optimism also correlates with higher levels of education and higher memory scores, and opposite results have been reported for dispositional pessimism.
The connection was stronger between pessimism and poor memory scores than between optimism and better memory scores. ” It should be noted that in our study, the association of higher pessimism and lower memory was observed only in 46-year-olds, not in 26-year-olds. “, The researchers add. ” This finding may suggest that the association is age-dependent and occurs when cognitive aging has begun, which may occur as early as middle age. “.
In general, stronger links between pessimism and cognitive abilities have been reported than between optimism and cognitive abilities. ” This observation supports the idea that optimism and pessimism should be analyzed as separate variables rather than as one dimension. Optimism and pessimism have different genetic influences and different associations with the two cerebral hemispheres, and therefore may have different characteristics that may go unnoticed if not examined separately. In addition, the number of tests performed was too different between 26- and 46-year-old adults to allow for comparative analysis, nor does the research provide evidence of cause and effect.
In addition, the link between optimism and reasoning disappeared when the level of education of a 26-year-old participant was checked, which means that education is an important factor for successful or unsuccessful cognitive skills tests. Similarly, when the factor is isolated, depression has a negative effect on the same tests.