Does It Pay to Be Optimistic?

According to a new working paper by Ron Kaniel, Cade Massey, and David T. Robinson (abstract here; PDF here), the answer is yes, at least if you’re an MBA student looking for a job:

Using a novel longitudinal data set that tracks the job search performance of MBA students, we show that dispositional optimists experience significantly better job search outcomes than pessimists with similar skills. During the job search process, they spend less effort searching and are offered jobs more quickly. They are choosier and are more likely to be promoted than others. Although we find optimists are more charismatic and are perceived by others to be more likely to succeed, these factors alone do not explain away the findings. Most of the effect of optimism on economic outcomes stems from the part that is not readily observed by one’s peers.


The key data source, the authors write, “is an eight-wave online survey of daytime MBA students at a midatlantic university that we conducted between August 2005 and May 2007.”

There is reason to be cautious about such findings, driven as they are by self-reporting and experimental game-play. But there is also reason to admit, as the authors acknowledge, that “labor economists have demonstrated that non-cognitive skills, many shaped in early childhood, affect a wide range of adult-life outcomes.”

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  1. Drill-Baby-Drill Drill Team says:

    Avoid the extremes. You don’t want to be a Perpetually GLoomy Gus or an Eternally Chipper Pollyana.

    A lot of the most dejected pessimists are clinically mentally ill with minor depression or mood dysthymia and/or Alcohol Abuse–probably undiagnosed and untreated. These people will not do well in any situation. A study cannot include the abnormal if it is to be generalized to a normal population.

    If you exclude these depressed people from the study, I think the realistic pessimist and mild optimist probably have similar prospects.

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  2. bob says:

    Not exactly a surprise. Martin Seligman showed that optimists usually make the best salesmen, and graduates are selling themselves. If you want to know the secret, read Seligman’s book “Learned Optimism”.

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  3. Terry Paulson, PhD says:

    The research matches what others have found about optimists. As I write in my new book, “The Optimism Advantage,” Optimists don’t just have a positive attitude. Optimism is earned through a track record of overcoming obstacles. The more obstacles you have overcome in your life, the more you believe that you will do it again. Optimists are also realists. They want to know the problems they face, because they believe they can overcome them. They also have a bias for action; in searching for jobs they are more likely to persevere through the high frequency of “no’s” they will face. If your readers want twenty tips from my book that can help them claim their own optimism advantage, visit http://optimismadvantage.com/?p=159.

    Thanks for your post on this added research. Optimism is an attitude that translates into results. Too many are waiting for actions in Washington to produce the answer. You may not be able to impact THE economy, but everyone with the right attitude and actions can impact their OWN economy. Nothing guarantees results; but optimists work to improve their own batting average.

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  4. Ian Kemmish says:

    Maybe my statistical sampling is skewed, but I can’t ever remember meeting an MBA who wasn’t dangerously over-optimistic. I had always assumed that was why John Warnock’s famous quote advised against hiring them.

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  5. Alex says:

    And maybe the high-skilled, more-employable students are simply rationally optimistic and the one’s with resume/skill weakness are rationally pessimistic that they won’t find jobs.

    If this is the case, it is no wonder why optimistic group appears to outperform pessimistic one.

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  6. frankenduf says:

    never underestimate self-sabotage

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  7. Greg says:

    There is a stark difference between optimism and wisdom. If the para mater of the study is simply productivity (however defined), yes, I imagine that optimists would outperform pessimists in the short run. But as recent events such as the economic crisis have shown, short-run productivity is often a precursor to long-term disaster. It was optimistic of those mortgage brokers to sell houses with wildly inflated prices using dubious ARMs that are only economically feasible for most people should the economy keep going up indefinably.

    I’ll take wisdom over optimism any day.

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  8. Steve O says:

    I wonder what it takes for people to become optimists. As evidenced by some of the comments here, and time and time again in the face of others’ success, pessimistic people discount the advantages of a positive outlook. When people read articles about optimism’s virtues, their instinct is to discount them. I work in a sales environment where this mindset is prevalent (!).

    In my own life, it took a summer of hard work and blind trust to lead me to develop a truly internal locus of control. I learned that, while there is higher power in charge, I control most of what happens to me. Let yourself believe and you’ll be surprised what you can do.

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