Home All Optimists in Law School

Dave Shearon, MAPP, applies positive psychology to both law and education. Dave writes articles about applications of Positive Psychology to law and education at his site. He co-authored the recently published book, Smart Strengths: Building Character, Resilience and Relationships in Youth. Full bio.

Dave's articles are here.

I have recently read Susan Segerstrom’s Breaking Murphy’s Law and was surprised to learn that much of her research has been done with law students. I wasn’t the only one; I checked with one major researcher in the field and he wasn’t familiar with that aspect of her work either.


Dr. Segerstrom focuses on the relationship between optimism and immune system functioning. Dr. Segerstrom studies future-oriented optimism. Such optimists hold more strongly to expectations of future good events than to expectations of future bad events. In general, optimists have stronger immune system functions than pessimists.

However, Dr. Segerstrom found in her research, beginning with that for her doctoral studies, that this relationship was not nearly as strong for law students as in most other studies. On further investigation, she found that the optimists split into two groups, one that had the expected strong immune system, and one where the immune system was somewhat suppressed.

What accounted for the difference? Distance from home. That’s right. The optimistic students that moved away to go to law school had the expected strong immune systems, but those that stayed close to their friends and family from before law school had lower functioning immune systems. Why? Because optimists focus on their goals and are more committed to them. In fact, for those who want to act more like optimists (which Dr. Segerstrom recommends) she says, “The first rule of doing optimism is pursuing goals.” Optimistic students who were close to home had expectations of success in law school AND expectations of keeping up with and enjoying friends, family, and recreational activities. As they encountered the time demands of law school (which Dr. Segerstrom suggests are greater than for other post-graduate programs — I don’t have citations for this), optimistic students simply INCREASED their efforts to achieve their goals BOTH for law school and their social goals involving friends, family, and recreation. They went after it all and, as a result, burned energy that had to come from somewhere, and some came from their immune systems. Interestingly though, they didn’t necessarily get sick more often or suffer any permanent harm. Instead, they traded short-term vulnerability in health to maintain and increase valued social and psychic resources.

Optimistic students who moved away from home also had social goals, but their opportunities for keeping up with friends and family were more limited — email and telephone calls. So, though they worked at those goals, the time demands were less.

What about pessimistic students? They often gave up on social goals to pursue academic achievement in law school. This could be a short-term strategy for success in a limited sphere while sacrificing important areas of life and satisfaction for the long term.

In another form of optimism, that associated with attributional style, one study has shown that students with a negative attributional style (pessimism) tend to outperform their more positive spheres in law school after controlling for undergraduate GPAs and LSAT scores (Satterfield et al., 1997). This is an extraordinarily anomalous finding as generally folks with positive explanatory styles achieve greater success in most endeavors. What’s the relationship between this and Dr. Segerstrom’s work? Don’t know, but I suspect there may be some clues here to how to address the extraordinary negative effects of law school (here and here).



Segerstrom, S. (2006). Breaking Murphy’s Law: How Optimists Get What They Want from Life – and Pessimists Can Too. New York: The Guilford Press.

Satterfield, J. M., Monahan, J., & Seligman, M. E. P. (1997). Law school performance predicted by explanatory style. Behavioral Sciences and the Law. Abstract.

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Senia 23 October 2007 - 10:23 am

Dave, thanks for our second ever book review on this site!

I LOVE THAT, and so will Caroline Miller – “The first rule of doing optimism is pursuing goals.”

You write that they burned energy that came from their immune systems. That’s pretty intense – that the additional pressure of socializing could affect the immune system. More fuel for the argument that people could use a bit of alone time, or at least balance in that area.

This was a fabulously interesting piece to me.

Thank you,

Caroline Miller 26 October 2007 - 10:28 am

Hi Dave,
I’m going to run out and buy this book! What a great review for those of us who are really working on goal accomplishment with clients, and who love this topic to death. I read in the paper this morning about how different parts of the brain light up when you have optimistic vs pessimistic thoughts, so I’m sure there is a cascade of positive outcomes from the optimistic explanatory style and thought process. Great job!

Mike 4 February 2009 - 5:44 pm

Regarding the study mentioned at the end, I think that it likely has to do with the correlation between extroversion and optimism. Compared to extroverts, introverts tend to be more pessimistic, but also more intellectual. I know that there is often a big shock when people first get to law school, when they find out that there is no one ‘right’ answer. Here is where the less sunny and more pensive people might have an advantage. Also, I would guess that there is a lot of variation among extroverts, depending on their Myers-Briggs personality type. People who are the ENTP type probably tend to do very well in law school because enjoy discussing theory, but also have a high level of vitality and get lots of social stimulation.


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