Academics & Research News

Optimism a plus in recovery, study finds

Assistant professor Melanie Rudd co-authored a study focused on the effects of optimism when recovering from health challenges. | Courtesy of Melanie Rudd

A person in the throes of a serious health crisis may feel lost in the recovery process. Finding the light at the end of the tunnel can be difficult when faced with a life-threatening illness.

Melanie Rudd, an assistant professor of marketing and entrepreneurship in the Bauer College of Business, co-authored a study that hopes to address that hopelessness. It’s called “Cultivating Optimism: How to Frame Your Future during a Health Challenge.”

“We wanted to ask, ‘If you’re facing a health challenge — in visualizing how you’re going to achieve the goal — what should you do?'” Rudd said. “And our answer is that it depends on your cultural background.”

The study found that “culturally specific” language made a difference in self-perception and how optimistic an individual is that they’ll reach a specific goal. Jennifer Aaker of Stanford University and Donell Briley of the University of Sydney co-authored the study.

In the study, which was directed at people facing serious health problems, researchers compared two models when approaching recovery — the “initiator” would focus on their future actions and imagining how they would react, regardless of situation. The “responder,” would imagine their reactions to tough situations they’re bound to encounter.

“Optimism is important to everyone — regardless of their cultural or ethnic background,” Briley said. “Our studies show, however, that the way individuals should go about cultivating optimism differs depending on culture.”

Rudd found that little research had been done on the subject of optimism as it relates to recovery.

“Other research showed that if you have a goal, don’t visualize the outcome you want, visualize the process,” Rudd said. “Visualizing the goal can sometimes be a mal-adaptive thing to do, but visualizing the process — how you’re going to a achieve that goal — is generally a good thing.”

To expand on that conclusion, the team found distinct ways to visualize the process.

Rudd said the team predicted that people from more independent cultures, such as Americans, would be more optimistic about recovering from a serious health problem if they adopted an “initiator.”

Conversely, they predicted an individual from a culture where the people are more traditionally interdependent would have higher levels of optimism if they adopted a “responder” frame when envisioning their recovery.

Rudd, Aaker and Briley found evidence to support their hypothesis that higher levels of optimism could positively impact health outcomes and decisions dealing with riskier medical procedures.

The research has practical uses — the feedback received in the study can be used by health care providers, businesses, lawmakers and other consumer analysts to determine marketing strategies and better communicate with consumers on health-related matters.

“In my experience, going into a difficult task with a pessimistic attitude is a recipe for disaster,” Briley said. “And an optimistic outlook can fuel success when things get tough.”

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