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Running head: THE EFFECTS OF POSITIVE THINKING ON ACADEMIC

PERFORMANCE

The Effects of Positive Thinking on Academic Performance

Jonathan Cleveland

Morehouse College

THE EFFECTS OF POSITIVE THINKING ON ACADEMIC PERFORMANCE

Abstract
The effects of positive thinking can be witnessed in many realms and have many benefits for the
individual that adapts this thinking style. Persons that engage in these acts of mental fortification
are better suited for success and are protected against higher rates of depression and other
negative health outcomes brought on by adverse situations and stress. Researchers hypothesized
that students with higher rates of optimism will experience increased rate of academic success
compared to students with a pessimistic outlook on their academic trajectory. An independent
samples t-test was conducted to compare optimism scores for students who were placed in either
the experimental or control group. There was a significant difference in scores for students in the
treatment group (M = 18.2, SD = 1.30) and the control condition (M = 12, SD = 4.32; t (7) =
3.08, p = .05. two-tailed). However, due to issues with the sample size conclusions cannot be
accurately determined even though the analyses indicated a difference.
Keywords: Optimism, Positive-Thinking, LOT, Trait Hope, and T-test.

THE EFFECTS OF POSITIVE THINKING ON ACADEMIC PERFORMANCE

The effects of positive thinking can be witnessed in many realms and have many benefits
for the individual that adapts this thinking style. Persons that engage in these acts of mental
fortification are better suited for success and protected against negative health outcomes brought
on by stress. Positive thinking is the act of engaging in self-talks or autonomic thoughts that tend
to be rooted in optimistic ideologies. Individuals that maintain an optimistic approach to
situations in the presence of adversity tend to find effective coping strategies to manage their
stress compared to those who have more of a pessimistic outlook (Aspinwall & Taylor, 1991).
The proactivity of individuals that engage in positive thinking aid them in seeking constructive
coping strategies to alleviate their problem instead of wallowing within the issue; this coping
strategy not only aide optimistic individuals in diminishing their stressors but, optimism is also a
great predictors of overall health outcomes. Some of the health benefits of positive thinking
include: longer lifespan, lower rates of stress and depression, reduced risk of heart disease, and
decreased immunosuppressive functioning (Thoits, 2010). There is no clear reason to pinpoint
why individuals with an optimistic outlook on life tend to have greater health outcomes.
However, researchers believe that its rooted in their ability to seek effective coping strategies
and not engage in maladaptive practices like smoking and consuming alcohol.
Research by Aspinwall & Taylor (1998), assessed whether or not individual
differences in attitude were mediated by the use of specific coping strategies which, facilitate
adjustment strategies like seeking social support and increased motivation. A longitudinal study
was conducted to investigate the disposition (positive or negative) of college freshmen. Whether
or not students were high in either positive or negative affectivity would determine the outcomes
linked to their respective coping strategies, academic performance and, overall health. The
research findings illuminated some inconsistencies tied to individuals with negative outlooks.

THE EFFECTS OF POSITIVE THINKING ON ACADEMIC PERFORMANCE

Students with negative affect were labeled as distressed and in turn, sought many methods to
alleviate their distress, although different methods were sought to cope and ultimately adjust,
these methods were mostly ineffective and the students showed little improvement in the
measured constructs. Students characterized as high in optimism/self-esteem and desire for
control in academic performance showed increased motivation to perform at a high level, with
control for SAT scores these variables (optimism/pessimism) alone were predicators of high
grades at the end of the second academic year. Positive affect was a key indicator in whether or
not students performed well in subsequent years but it was not an effective indicator in
determining health outcomes.
Gaudreau & Thompson (2008) conducted a similar study assessing the mediating role of
optimism and pessimism and how these constructs impacted short-term academic motivation and
coping styles in college students. The results of study determined two positive relationships: (1)
optimism and task-oriented coping; (2) pessimism and disengagement-oriented coping. The
optimistic students of task-oriented coping styles were individuals who partook in academic
endeavors out of pleasure to fulfill goals they set prior to enrollment in college. On the contrary,
the pessimistic students of the disengaged coping style partook in the same endeavors but
performed these tasks to avoid punishment and guilt. Highly optimistic individuals exemplified
higher levels of self-determination, which fostered a negative correlation between pessimism and
self-determination.
The presence of optimism in many ways is important in the maintenance of focus and
resources to fulfill an objective however; this does not discredit the importance of negativity or
even the adverse effects of positivity. Many individuals receive little pleasure from being around
a Negative Nancy however; these pessimists serve an important role in social interactions. The

THE EFFECTS OF POSITIVE THINKING ON ACADEMIC PERFORMANCE

group should not engross the doubt projected by the negative individual but they should take
heed to this advice and use the negativity as a checklist for potential reasons why a plan may
implode (McArdle, 2014).
Optimists are better performing individuals in work, sport, and school. These individuals
are also better protected from negative states of affects like depression and have a higher quality
of interpersonal relationships (Seligman, 1991). In reference to the literature, it is hypothesized
that students who personify positive thinking and harbor these sentiments towards their academic
futures will be better suited for adverse situations and experience more academic success
compared to a student marked with higher levels of pessimism. Through the identification of
students who measure lower on the continuum of optimism these students will be offered
strategies in which they can personify more of an optimistic outlook to increases their
achievements also.

Method
Participants
The nine participants recruited for the longevity of the study were underclass students at
Morehouse College. These students were African-American males between the ages 18-24.
Students were recruited from the Statistics 201 in the Morehouse Psychology Department.
Following the recruitment of these students, all were included within the study.

Procedures
Prior to intervention and admission of optimism scales students were informed about the
risks and benefits of the study via consent forms. Participants were informed that their

THE EFFECTS OF POSITIVE THINKING ON ACADEMIC PERFORMANCE

involvement was completely voluntary. After the collection of consent form, students were
instructed to write their current sentiments and opinions pertaining to the classes they were
currently enrolled in. Following the collection of participant opinions, they were then informed
that the study would take place in two stages. The initial stage included the administration of
consent forms and writing submissions to gauge the overall number of participants; this initial
data collection will serve as a baseline to assess optimism levels. The second stage encompassed
the intervention of the study and admission of optimism scales. Students were randomly placed
in either the treatment or control groups via number generator. Students within the treatment
group were shown a video in which statistics tips were given. During the second half of the
treatment video upperclassmen students from the mathematics and psychology departments
discussed their overall experiences taking statistics courses. During this segment of the video the
upperclassmen discussed their overall expectations going into the class, the adversity they
experienced during the class, and how their experiences did not match their initial thoughts or the
rumors they had previously conceptualized. The purpose of this video was to serve as an aid to
the current statistics students helping them gain new vantage point on how to handle adversity
experienced in college. The students selected for the control group were shown a video that
explained the neurobiology of cognition. The day following the showings of the treatment and
control videos the students were given a statistics quiz. Subsequent to the quiz the students were
administered the THS and LOT surveys. These scales were given to assess the overall levels of
optimism in the students. If the students displayed high scores on both the statistics quiz and
optimism scales the relationship could be linked to the intervention or another extraneous
variable. The collection of this data served as measuring stick to analyze the effects of the
intervention in comparison to the student responses given during the opening stage of the study.

THE EFFECTS OF POSITIVE THINKING ON ACADEMIC PERFORMANCE

Measures
The Life Orientation Test or LOT (Bridges, Carver, & Scheier, 1985) was designed to
measure dispositional optimism and pessimism. The test features four items that measure
optimism and another four items that measure pessimism. Items are to be rated using a 5-point
Likert scale ranging from 0 (strongly disagree) to 4 (strongly agree). Participants were required
to respond to questions as truthfully as possible while, taking note of how each item on the scale
specifically pertained to their individual lives The highest score possible on this scale was 24;
those students with higher scores were considered more optimistic. The Trait Hope Scale or THS
(Snyder, Harris, et. al., 1991) was developed based on Snyders (1989; Snyder, Irving &
Anderson, 1991) theory of hope. It was designed for individuals aged 16 and older and consists
of twelve items, eight that tap dispositional, or trait-like, hope levels. The remaining four items
are distracters and are not scored. Of the hope-related items, four measure pathways thinking and
four assess thinking, towards goal setting and achievement. The highest score possible on this
scale was a 64; those students with higher scores were considered more optimistic.

Results

An independent samples t-test was conducted to compare optimism scores for students
who were placed in either the experimental or control group. There was a significant difference
in scores for students in the treatment group (M = 18.2, SD = 1.30) and the control condition (M
= 12, SD = 4.32; t (7) = 3.08, p = .05. two-tailed). The magnitude of the differences in the means

THE EFFECTS OF POSITIVE THINKING ON ACADEMIC PERFORMANCE

(mean difference = 6.2) was large (eta squared = .19). Although results from the study and the
figures from the study had followed trends analogous to the expected outcome, no conclusion
can be drawn from this stating the intervention was the contributory device, which fostered the
optimistic outlook within the students.

Discussion
In conclusion, the study was successful in terms of identifying the constructs in which
assessments would be made. There was also some success with the T-test, which measured the
levels of optimism and performance; these results along with the quiz scores collected during the
second stage of the study further justify the claims that students with an optimistic outlook are
more successful than pessimists (Seligman, 1991). However, due to unforeseen circumstance the
study was hindered in a manner, which ultimately compressed the recruiting process. The
shortened recruiting process produced a limited amount of participants involved in the study (n =
9). The trends witnessed from the data analysis were similar to the initial expectations. But the
studys small sample size negated any assertions that can conclusively affirm our hypothesis.
The similarities between the results and the hypothesis can be attributed to another extraneous
variable not the intervention. The students could have been optimistic prior to the intervention
due to history of good test scores (intervention was conducted during the last portion of the
semester). Malingering could have also been a factor in the study; participants may have wanted
to provide anticipated results of the study and not report honest levels of optimism due to fear of
scrutiny. Future implications of this study will be associated with the recruiting process.
Expansion of the study and reaching out to students of different majors/disciplines will not only

THE EFFECTS OF POSITIVE THINKING ON ACADEMIC PERFORMANCE


aid in expanding the sample size but it will diversify the data. There may be a possibility that
students of psychology are more optimistic than students of other disciplines because they are
familiar with the benefits of having a positive attitude. Another implication for future studies is
the use of another measure to determine academic success; GPA would be a good measure.
Although there are some confounds (academic dishonesty) associated with GPA, the
incorporation of an additional measure aside from test/quiz score will depict a clearer picture.
The last implication of the study for future studies is time. With increased time of observation
more data will be collected and the data can be looked at and manipulated in more ways
compared to studies of shorter lengths.

THE EFFECTS OF POSITIVE THINKING ON ACADEMIC PERFORMANCE

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References
Anderson, J., Gibb, L., Harris, C., Harney, P., Holleran, S., Irving, L., ... Yoshinobu, L. (1991).
The Will and The Ways: Development and Validation of an Individual Differences Measure of
Hope. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 60, 570-585.

Aspinwall, L., & Taylor, S. (1991). Modeling Cognitive Adaptation: A Longitudinal


Investigation of the Impact of Individual Differences and Coping on College Adjustment and
Performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 63(6), 989-1003.

Bridges, M., Carver, C., & Scheier, M. (1985). Optimism, Coping, and Health: Assessment and
Implications of Generalized Outcome Expectancies. Health Psychology, 4, 219-247.

Gaudreau, P., & Thompson, A. (2008). From Optimistic and Pessimism to Coping: The
Mediating Role of Academic Motivation. International Journal of Stress Managment, 15(3),
269-288.

McArdle, M. (2014, February 20). Why Negativity is Really Awesome. Bloomberg


Businessweek.

Seligman, M. E. P. (1991). Learned optimism. New York: Knopf.

Snyder, C. R. (1989). Reality negotiation: From excuses to hope and beyond. Journal of Social
and Clinical Psychology, 8, 130157.

THE EFFECTS OF POSITIVE THINKING ON ACADEMIC PERFORMANCE

11

Thoits, P. (2010). Stress and Health: Major Findings and Policy Implications. Journal of Health
and Social Behavior, 51, 41-53.

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Results cont

Life Orienation Test Results


20
15
Treatment
10

Control

5
0
1

Fig 1: Line graph of the LOT scores the plots follow the trends analogous to the hypothesis.

Trait Hope Scale Results


70
60
50
40

Treatment

30

Control

20
10
0
1

Fig 2: Line graph of the Trait Hope Scale scores the plots follow the trends analogous to
the hypothesis.

*Trends further explained above in the Results and Discussion sections.