Optimism is associated with higher cognitive abilities, study finds

Published in the journal of Personality and Individual Differences, researchers were interested in investigating the associations of dispositional optimism and pessimism with cognitive abilities in adulthood. They found that young adults with higher dispositional optimism and lower pessimism had higher reasoning skills and higher pessimism was related to lower scores on memory tests for middle-aged adults.

Previous research shows that optimism is related to positive health and wellbeing outcomes, whereas pessimism is associated with health-related risks and maladaptive behaviors. According to intellectual investment theories, it is suggested that personality traits can affect cognition abilities. For instance, joy promotes creativity and negative emotionality activates people’s thought-action repertoire to prepare them for quick decisions in threatening situations. People with optimistic views tend to pay attention to positive information and believe they are capable of influencing their lives. On the other hand, pessimists tend to believe life events are caused by external forces and their own influence is inferior.

Researchers Jutta Karhu and colleagues were interested in investigating the extent to which optimism and pessimism are associated with cognitive abilities. These researchers examined data from 383 participants who were 26 year old and 5,042 participants who were 46 year old. Individuals who were born prematurely, had serious medical illnesses, or had an intellectual disability were not included.

Dispositional optimism and pessimism were measured via the Carver’s Life Orientation Test-Revised. Cognitive abilities were measured via the Matrix Reasoning section of the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale (WAIS-III) and the Vocabulary component of the WAIS-III. Other cognitive skills were measured using the Semantic Fluency Test, the Grooved Pegboard test, the Stroop test, the modified Stop Signal Test, and the Paired Associates Learning test.

Results from this study found that higher dispositional optimism was associated with lower dispositional pessimism, lower depression among the 26-year-olds, higher education levels, and higher scores on matrix reasoning. This study also found that higher dispositional pessimism correlated with lower education levels, higher depression, and lower scores on matrix reasoning, vocabulary, and motor skills. Similar results were found among the 46-year-olds studied.

Among the 26-year-olds, the relationship between dispositional optimism and pessimism disappeared when participant’s education level was controlled for. Higher pessimism was significantly associated with lower matrix reasoning in all models (types of analyses). Higher pessimism was associated with lower vocabulary except for when education level was controlled for. Among the 46-year-olds, higher dispositional pessimism was related to lower memory test scores and there was no association between dispositional optimism and memory scores.

Karhu and colleagues argue that, based on their findings, optimism may serve as an intellectual investment trait that supports the development of reasoning skills. Positive thinking and better stress management skills are short-term effects of optimism that improves performance on reasoning tasks. Optimism may increase one’s motivation to spend more time in challenging situations long-term and help strengthen reasoning skills.

On the other hand, pessimism appears to be related to depression and giving up more easily. This could negatively affect reasoning skills short-term but could help develop reasoning skills over time. Karhu and colleagues posit that higher pessimism and memory decline may be explained by pessimists having smaller social networks that would help preserve memory.

A limitation of this research is that causal relationships cannot be determined. Also, the 26-year-old’s cognitive abilities were measured via 7 measures whereas the 46-year-olds cognitive abilities were measured with only one measure.

The study, “Dispositional optimism and pessimism in association with cognitive abilities in early and middle adulthood“, was authored by Jutta Karhu, Mirka Hintsanen, Ellen Ek, Jari Koskela, and Juha Veijola.