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Hope vs. Optimism: Which One Do You Need to Succeed?

Maintaining a hopeful, optimistic attitude positively affects a person's healthacademic performance, and relationships. But what makes someone hopeful or optimistic?


"Whether you think you can or whether you think you can't, you're right," said Henry Ford, explaining with brevity the importance of outlook on your potential for success. Ford's comment is now echoed by psychologists who have found a causal link between our mental attitude and our physical reality.

Maintaining a hopeful, optimistic attitude has been shown to positively affect a person's healthacademic performance and relationships. But what about someone's attitude makes them hopeful or optimistic? The two words—hope and optimism—are easy to use interchangeably in conversation. Now, a new study looks at what sets hope and optimism apart, and how the two attitudes are successfully cultivated amid the travails of life. 

An important goal of the study, performed by psychologists at Chicago's Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science, was to figure out whether hope and optimism are two distinct mental constructs or parts of the same one.

To understand this, the researchers first replicated a 2004 study that found the constructs to be separate and a 2009 study that saw both hope and optimism as part of a larger “goal attitude”. Replicating the previously-found results was a key aim of the new research in and of itself as many studies have been found unreproducible.

Participating scientists included Drew Fowler, Emily Weber, Scott Klappa, and Steven A. Miller.

They considered six models in analyzing the data, which was gathered from 417 participants using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (MTurk). This crowdsourcing Internet job marketplace has been gaining popularity as a research environment. For small fees, MTurk workers perform all manner of tasks that computers are not able to do.  

To measure hope, the researchers relied on the 12-item Adult Hope Scale developed by psychologist Rick Snyder in the 1990s. Snyder regarded hope as a cognitive process that helped people plan and pursue goals. An important component of hope to Snyder is being proactive and exhibiting “agency” towards achieving the set goals. Another significant component is having "pathways" or plans to achieve the goals. Having both agency and pathways would produce motivation, the driving force towards making the objectives a reality. 

The scientists used the Life Orientation Test as the scale for measuring optimism, viewed as a positive outlook on the future, which is not necessarily dependent on doing something about it.

What they found is that hope and optimism share some commonalities, but are also each quite unique, suggesting that both strategies are used by people individually and together.

In the example given by the psychologists, a person who is applying for internships is relying on a general belief in his or her ability to get those internships. The person would use different hopeful approaches to attain the goal of an internship, from applications to networking. But if rejected, the person could remain optimistic and continue applying. It’s the specific combination of the two strategies of thinking about the future that may determine the success or failure of the potential intern.

The scientists conclude that hope and optimism should be employed by people with “flexibility,” ensuring the success of their goals. 

“The findings of this study suggest hope and optimism may be simultaneously intrinsic to each other, as well as contain unique properties on their own. It is our interpretation that this flexibility may aid individuals employing these factors to achieve their goals, or when expecting some outcome in their future. The use of these different strategies may suggest that hope and optimism, like musical instruments, can be enjoyed on their own, but can create an even more powerful impact when they harmonize together,” write the authors.

The researchers note that there are some limitations of their study that should be taken into account. In particular, the fact that their sample may not represent the makeup of the U.S. precisely as their subjects were 78% Caucasian, 6% African American, 6% Hispanic, and 6% Asian. 

You can read their study here.

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Maps show how CNN lost America to Fox News

Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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