Why Hopefulness Is a Greater Predictor of Academic Success than Intelligence

A growing body of scientific investigation now supports the conclusion that being hopeful has a distinctly positive effect on academic performance.


This article is part of the Hope and Optimism initiative which explores the theoretical, empirical, and practical dimensions of hope, optimism, and related states.

Succeeding at school or university is about more than memorizing vast amounts of information and impressing professors with ingenious ideas. A growing body of scientific investigation now supports the conclusion that being hopeful has a distinctly positive effect on academic performance.

One paper from the University of Kansas looked at how the presence of hope boosted college achievement over a 6-year period, finding that 'high-hope' students had higher GPAs, and were more likely to graduate than 'low-hope' students.

A separate 3-year study by a team of British researchers has shown that hope is not only related to academic success, but is a greater predictor of success than intelligence tests, personality, or whether individuals previously did well in academic environments.

But what is hope? Recent studies have based their definition on positive psychologist Rick Snyder's theory developed in the 1990s. Snyder saw hope as a “cognitive process allowing individuals to plan for and execute the pursuit of goals."

Snyder's separate “hope theory" offers more insight on the concept of hope.


Students study with their laptop computers in the Pedagogical Library at the Freie Universitaet university on September 20, 2011 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

In a 1991 paper, Snyder outlined his theory as “a cognitive set that is based on a reciprocally-derived sense of successful agency (goal-directed determination) and pathways (planning to meet goals)". In other words, it is essential for hope that a person feels he or she has agency — an ability to effectuate change — and pathways to achieve that change. If those conditions are met, motivation will drive a person to achieve set goals.

Thinking of hope in this way is important. Wanting to accomplish something is not enough. Goals must be pursued, and a sense of getting closer to them is crucial. Hope is preserves a goal-oriented approaches amid the vicissitudes of life.

According to researchers, if you don't have hope, you are more likely to employ “mastery goals," i.e. choosing simple, attainable tasks that aren't challenging and don't help you grow. Accomplishing mastery goals implies a lack of control over one's environment, therefore making it easier to give up.

Even with these definitions, hope can be a somewhat fuzzy concept. For this reason, Snyder developed a “hope scale" to measure it in individuals, making it easier to conduct research into the subject.


Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 1991, Vol. 60, No. 4, 570-585E

A 2014 study by researchers at Santa Clara University, led by David B. Feldman, built on Snyder's work by looking to distinguish between the role of hope and optimism on academic achievement. The paper concludes by saying that higher hope predicts a higher GPA. In fact, scientists found hope to be the most consistent predictor of GPA, beating out optimism. Why? It seems that being optimistic is general in nature. Optimism is an attitude towards life — present-oriented belief that everything will be okay — but not a specific goal-oriented approach.

Snyder understood optimism as the expectation of a positive outcome without regard for one's own actions. Hope, on the other hand, assumes active participation in achieving goals through planning and motivation.

In an environment where you need to go after many objectives like writing papers, taking notes, preparing for tests, and putting plans into motion, being hopeful is a better bet for securing good grades than being merely optimistic.

The results of the Feldman study corroborates previous research by Indiana University scientists that showed hope was a better predictor of success, compared to optimism, among law school students.

On the other hand, there are certain ways that optimism can help students overall. The Indiana University researchers did find that optimism contributed towards greater life satisfaction at the end of the first semester.

Another study realized that optimism was directly related to social support in the first year of college. In this case, optimistic students were found to have larger friend networks, which provided them greater social support in a stressful environment.

One final positive effect of being optimistic in school is that it can help you stay there. This study from the University of Kentucky has shown a positive correlation between academic optimism and retention.

Because optimistic people tend to finish what they've started, rather than drop out, scientists are advocating the teaching of hope as an academic intervention.

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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

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Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.