The Role of Optimism in Social Marketing

Jan 05

When I arrived home for the holidays, I rifled through my bookcase looking for a good read.  I stumbled upon a book I had purchased for a psychology class in college, “Learned Optimism,” by Martin Seligman, Ph.D.

A professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and past president of the American Psychological Association, Seligman describes a number of scientific experiments and groundbreaking theories in this book.  But there were two ideas that resonated with me, and that I believe can be applied to the work we do in social marketing:

1. Optimism is integral to overcoming barriers to success.

Seligman posits that how an individual thinks about and explains an event (one’s explanatory style) strongly influences his reaction to that event. Seligman explains that while a pessimistic explanatory style can produce depression in response to everyday setbacks, an optimistic explanatory style can produce resilience in the face of tragedy. While this may sound obvious to cognitive behavioral therapists, even they may be surprised by how strongly optimism correlates with overcoming adversity and barriers to success.

By examining how individuals think about and explain good and bad events, Seligman was able to:

  • Help insurance companies recruit persistent salespeople who could outsell their peers;
  • Assist coaches in identifying baseball players who could perform under late-inning pressure; and
  • Predict Senate seat winners with unprecedented accuracy.

What did winning salespeople, baseball players, and Senate candidates all have in common? They were all optimists.

2. Optimism can be learned.

Even those who instinctively lean towards pessimistic explanatory styles can learn to be optimists. Seligman offers a host of tactics to help individuals think about obstacles differently, empowering them to react to stumbling blocks in life more positively and bounce back from larger obstacles more quickly than before. One technique Seligman recommends is that pessimists learn to argue with themselves, offering evidence that disputes negative beliefs that lead to negative actions. For example, if Jane believes that she is a failure because she had one cigarette after pledging to quit, she can contradict this belief by reminding herself of the many ways in which she is a success—she was just promoted at her job, has a great relationship with her kids, and is happily married.  By thinking about herself in this new and different way, Jane is more likely to reinvigorate her commitment to quitting than give into temptation the next time she craves a cigarette.

What are the implications for social marketers?

I believe that optimism can play a powerful role in driving behavior change.  When designing interventions, we often think about how to mitigate barriers to action, like cost, inconvenience, and accessibility.  But could pessimism be a barrier that has slipped under our radar? Can we leverage optimism where it exists and foster it where it doesn’t? What implications do you think this has for the way we target audiences, identify influencers, develop messaging, or create materials?

This entry was posted on Thursday, January 5th, 2012 at 2:41 pm and is filed under Behavior Change, Ogilvy Washington, Social Marketing. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

One Response to “The Role of Optimism in Social Marketing”

  1. Dana Allen-Greil says:

    Your post got me thinking about a website/email service I use to remind me every day to be grateful. Now, that may sound preachy and condescending–who wants to be nagged every day about gratitude? The genius of it is–you’re the one “nagging” yourself every day, with your own stories about things that have made you happy in the past.

    Essentially, you receive an email each day with a prompt: “What are you grateful for today? Just reply to this email (attach a photo if you’d like).” Below this is the headline “How good was this? XX months ago you wrote:”. The service includes a randomly selected submission of yours from the past.

    Over the past year or so that I’ve been using this service, I’ve been reminded about the comfort of spaghetti and meatballs and the amazing sound of my aunt’s laugh after a long battle with cancer. The messages work because I crafted them myself–and in a personal way that was compelling to me at the time.

    Does HappyRambles encourage learned optimism and behavior change? The simple and free service certainly claims grand outcomes: “Longer life. Deeper relationships. Greater wealth.” The bottom line is that HappyRambles empowers people with their own words and reminds them of the good things in their lives–however small or quickly typed–that can be easy to forget in the face of challenges.

    It isn’t hard to imagine how this simple concept could be applied to other technology solutions (mobile, social, etc.) and other kinds of goals people set for themselves.

    Thanks for getting me thinking!