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The Perils of Pollyanna

written by Dave Shearon 17 April 2008

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.

One of the great things about blogging or having a personal web site is that I can look back and find things I wrote years ago and still agree with. (The opposite is also true, though not as frequent for me, but that’s a subject for another post!)

One such post is this one from before I entered the MAPP program: “Do you dare to be an office Pollyanna?” It’s just a brief comment about a story in a Quebec paper I read while traveling, but I was positive about the concept. I still am, but I am also more attuned to the daring aspects of such an effort.

One aspect that makes it daring is the the need to earn respect and trust. I am involved in an engagement facilitating resilience and positive psychology training. The folks in this organization have never worked with me before and didn’t contract directly with me. So, they are forming their judgments as I deliver. I recently finished a second major contact with this group, and, along the way, I’ve been asked, “How do you think it’s going?” Each time, I’ve responded that things are going well, and I’ve followed that up with specific observations about participant engagement, questions, and so on.

In one recent exchange, however, one of the folks in the conversation asked a question along the lines of “Would you say if it were not going well?” These are really smart folks at a top-notch organization, and I understand a bit of skepticism. Of course, as the party delivering, they are asking me to critique my work, and there should be some skepticism about that. But, I felt this went more to my overall positive and optimistic tone and response. (Should anyone who knew me in my earlier days when I was practicing law or even thereafter read this and start to choke, call me, it’s true!)

Optimism, a positive emotional base, hope, happiness, a strengths orientation and an appreciative inquiry approach to improvement: these things work. But, they don’t necessarily scream “smart, smart, smart — this guy is smart!” Criticism, negativity, and finding the fly in the ointment may serve that purpose better.

At least, that’s what Teresa Amabile’s work suggests. She found that experimental subjects rated the writers of negative book reviews as more expert and competent than the authors of positive book reviews, even though independent experts in the field came to just the opposite conclusions! The belief that happy, optimistic, hopeful individuals (Pollyannas) are air heads who are out of touch with reality is alive and well in most of the working world. So, being such a person has its risks, at least on first impressions. Being a person who admits to consciously having chosen to think in such ways, even when one can back it up with solid science, likely exacerbates those risks.

My response? That’s ok. Over time, opportunities come up to show that you can deal with tough situations, recognize times when things aren’t going well or when individuals aren’t performing well in a position. But, when you can still deal with those challenges in a positive, hopeful, optimistic, caring, building way, one not only wins respect for intelligence and competence, but admiration and good feelings as well. Remember, we like positive people. Most of us would much rather work with such individuals. We want them for co-workers, bosses, employees, friends, and mates.

So, those who would join me in Pollyannahood, be of good cheer! You may not impress folks right off the bat with your devastatingly brilliant critique of all the problems. But, your creativity, perseverance, and pathways thinking will wear better over the long haul and, in the end, they may well think you are plenty smart, but they are also more likely to think you are the kind of person they want to work with again. You could start a long-term, collaborative, supportive and satisfying relationship, both professionally and personally. That’s worth a little risk of the Pollyanna perception on the front end, don’t you think?




Amabile, T. M. and Glazebrook, A. H. (1982). A negativity bias in interpersonal evaluation. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 18: 1–22. Abstract.

Gibson, B. & Oberlander, E. (2008). Wanting to appear smart: Hypercriticism as an indirect impression management strategy. Self and Identity, 8(4). Abstract.

Porter, Eleanor (1913). Pollyanna. Sterling Unabridged Classics.

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Christine Duvivier 18 April 2008 - 1:16 pm

Great article, Dave! It’s so true– I find myself downgrading the intelligence of people who come across all chipper and “isn’t everything wonderful” — even though I now go in front of executives with a Pollyanna attitude (by the way, she’s falsely maligned– she was one of my childhood heroines– brave, strong, and smart).

I found myself thinking, “why do we put so much emphasis on being ‘smart?'” but realized I put emphasis on intelligence without conscious thought.

Thanks for giving us something to think about.

Jeff Dustin 18 April 2008 - 1:28 pm


My working definition of “smart”: Intelligence is based on goal obtainment in a specific environment. Monkeys are smart. They can use crude technology to get bananas. People are smarter at banana-gathering because they can use better tools and get higher quality bananas faster and in larger quantity.

Dolphins are smart at getting fish, though idiots at algebra and Impressionist painting. Pollyanna was smart at making people feel good and at persisting but dumb as a pounded thumb at perception management.

Smart people get more of what they want.

Marie-Josee Salvas 18 April 2008 - 4:18 pm

Dave, thank you for offering this perspective. Your article cleverly clarifies the distinction between being smart and being perceived as smart. Smart for me means knowledgeable and capable, but most importantly, perceptive and adaptable. This last piece is dependent on broadening and building “a la Fredrickson” and as you know, it takes positive emotions to get in that zone. According to the article you are referencing, happy people may be perceived as less credible at first glance, but given research proves they are more successful both at work and in their personal lives, they make more money on average and live longer, healthier lives, then the conclusion is clear. Like you, I choose to be smart and happy – regardless of what first impression gloomier individuals may muster!


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