A positive outlook seems to help female students achieve significantly higher grades than their pessimistic peers, according to a new study from Israel.
Oddly, however, the same optimistic trait in male students more often goes along with a carefree attitude resulting in less studying and lower grades, according to Tamar Icekson, a doctoral student in Ben-Gurion University (BGU) of the Negev’s Guilford Glazer Faculty of Business and Management (http://profiler.bgu.ac.il/frontoffice/showUnit.aspx?id=179).
Occupational psychologist Tamar Icekson: “Encourage female students to wear rose-colored glasses.”
Icekson, along with BGU business dean Ayala Malach-Pines, and Prof. Oren Kaplan of the School of Business Administration at Israel’s College of Management (www.colman.ac.il/english), examined the attitudes and grades of 174 BGU business undergraduates aged 20 to 28. Men accounted for 28 percent of the sample.
Icekson and Kaplan presented the results of the study at the Second World Congress on Positive Psychology (http://community.ippanetwork.org/secondworldcongress/), held in July 2011 in Philadelphia. Positive psychology focuses on promoting mental health rather than treating illness, and Icekson and Kaplan wanted to study the effect of positive emotions and thinking on behavior.
“Optimism is one of the major research topics of positive psychology,” Icekson says.
Previous positive psychology studies have explored the role of optimism and conscientiousness in the workplace, but the academic context isn’t as well understood, Icekson explains. To find out more, she and Kaplan asked each participating student to take the Life Orientation Test (http://www.psy.miami.edu/faculty/ccarver/sclLOT-R.html), which asks respondents to agree or disagree with statements such as: “In uncertain times, I usually expect the best” and “If something can go wrong for me, it will.”
“Our findings suggest that holding optimistic views about the future results in better academic performance for women. Therefore, an important implication of our research is that teachers, families and institutions should encourage female students to adopt ‘rose-colored glasses.’ For male students, however, too much optimism leads to overconfidence and resulting lower grades.”
Overcoming inborn traits
Optimism tempered by conscientiousness produced the best results for male students, she adds. “Conscientiousness is a basic personality trait, exempliﬁed by being disciplined, organized and achievement-oriented. Working with male students on being more conscientious and not just more optimistic might get the best results.”
Among women, conscientiousness is apparently hard-wired.
“For female students, optimism alone was beneficial because they’re naturally more conscientious than their male counterparts,” Icekson says. “Women have lower self-esteem and so if they are not sure things will work out, they study for the test.”
Females are much more likely to be pessimistic than males, showing higher rates of depression and anxiety, says Icekson, an occupational psychologist who thinks her students and colleagues would describe her as optimistic.
The good news for both girls and guys is that optimism can be learned. “Several programs in the US seem to be successful in working with children to learn to be more optimistic in order to prevent depression,” she says. “I think a lot of professionals can benefit from learning more optimistic views when working with other people, but we still have a lot to learn about it.”
Optimistic women are leaders
The presentation at the Philadelphia convention generated much interest, and Icekson says she was pleased to be part of a group of about a dozen Israeli presenters from different disciplines. “One or two of the leading lecturers were Israelis, too, so we were very proud to be there.”
Based on the results of the study, the partners plan to investigate two further questions in the coming year.
“The first is the role of optimism and conscientiousness on performance among managers, with a focus on gender differences,” Icekson says. “The second is whether intervention programs designed to improve optimism and conscientiousness can help students excel in academic settings.”
Expecting to finish her doctorate in 2012, she wants to continue studying how optimism works differently for men and women, perhaps in the United States, and then come back to Israel to teach at the university level.
“In my professional experience, I have noticed that optimistic women reach higher in organizations,” Icekson says. “They tend to be leaders and to influence others, in business and also in the community.”