Important Affective Dispositions:
Optimism, Enthusiasm, and Empathy

Citation: Huitt, W. (2005). Important affective dispositions: Optimism, enthusiasm, and empathy. Educational Psychology Interactive. Valdosta, GA: Valdosta State University. Retrieved [date], from

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There are a wide variety of affective and emotional dispositions that have been related both positively and functionally related to academic success as well as to success in other social/economic environments. This brief overview highlights three that are important in different ways.


Optimism can be defined as the inclination to anticipate the best possible outcome for actions or events. This term is generally contrasted with pessimism which can be defined as an inclination to anticipate the least favorable or worst outcome for actions or events. Optimism has been demonstrated to be important for success of executives (Bunker & Wakefield, 2004) who in many ways operate in a manner similar to classroom teachers. In addition, optimists more likely to cope with stress and be physically healthy at all ages. This finding has been shown for college students (Harju & Bolen, 1998) and foryounger and older adults (Chang, 2002). Therefore, optimism is an important factor in modifying information before and after it is cognitively processed.

Martin Seligman (1990, 1995a, 1995b) and Alan McGinnis (1990) are two of the major researchers who believe optimism is a major factor in living a healthy, successful life; Zig Ziglar (2000) is popular writer who makes similar statement.

There are a variety of classroom applications for the concept of optimism. It has been found to be one of factors in liking of teacher (Frymier, 1994). It has also been found to be important quality of principals leading to improving teaching (Blase & Kirby, 1991). Most importantly researchers have shown that a teacher's level of optimism can be changed (Scherer & Kimmel, 1993). So you are not stuck with the level of optimism you have presently if you do not like it.


Enthusiasm may be defined as a strong warmth of feeling or a keen interest. It is generally contrasted with apathy which may be defined as a lack of emotion or a lack of interest. Enthusiasm is considered to be especially important in communication (e.g., Booth-Butterfield & Booth-Butterfield, 1990). This is an essential element in the information age because no matter how well we have processed information, if we communicate without enthusiasm we will not have the desired impact on our listeners. Norman Vincent Peale (1996) is popular writer in this area.

To get an idea of how important enthusiasm is read the following sentences out loud with the expression you believe appropriate.

Was there a difference in how each thought was communicated? You bet there was!


Empathy is the ability to connect one's emotions to that of another's and is often contrasted with apathy or numbness. Plomin (1990) suggests there is a genetic basis for empathy, summarizing data showing that identical twins are more alike in their empathetic responses than fraternal twins. According to Goleman (1995), those who lack empathy have a serious shortfall in emotional intelligence. He states that this lack of empathy can be found in “criminal psychopaths, rapists, and child molesters” (p. 96) and points out that people rarely express to others in words what they are feeling. Rather, we must read and understand nonverbal cues to understand another’s emotions. Psychologists have found that babies only a few months old will start crying when they observe another child crying. Furthermore, young children’s empathic capabilities appear to be influenced by their observation of people react to the distress of others.

A critical component of empathy is the ability to understand and communicate “as if” from the other person’s point of view, taking the other person’s perspective, while at the same time not losing sight of the fact that the feelings and thoughts in fact belong to the other person. Empathy is multidimensional in the sense that the understanding of the other person may be either cognitive or affective or both. Empathy may go beyond understanding of the other person to include emotional responsiveness or resonance such that an individual comes to experience the same or compatible emotions of the other person. Thus, along with understanding the situation as if from the other person's perspective, an aspect of empathy may include feeling distress when confronted with the distress of others, or it may include pity in response to another's sorrow and loss. Empathy is thus a complex process that involves both cognitive and affective abilities such as listening to key ideas and discerning core emotions in emotion stories; being able to recognize the facial display of emotion; identifying emotion in verbal statements, tone of voice and body language; carefully selecting appropriate emotion words when preparing a response; emitting appropriate emotional responses; internally "resonating" with compatible feeling; offering sensitive reflection statements; and generalizing emotional content to new or comparable situations (Martin, 1999; Goldstein and Michaels, 1985).

Hoffman (2000) proposes that empathy is foundational to moral development. His research shows that empathy, the connecting of one’s feelings and emotions to another’s, can be discerned in infants and develops in readily identifiable stages. He proposes that justice, a core value in Kohlberg’s (1984) theory of moral development, has two components, care and equity, and that empathy provides a foundation for both. Hoffman, therefore, advocates that adults encourage children to share the feelings of those he or she has mistreated as essential for moral development. Piel (2000) goes even further, suggesting that emotions are an individual’s moral compass, evolutionarily developed to guide one’s self-regulating and adaptive behavior.

Parents and teachers can help their children develop empathy by first showing an awareness of emotions and discussing them with their children. They can help children discern emotions by providing labels for different feelings that their children might have (Gottman, 1997).  When a child knows the uncomfortable feeling they are having has a name, it seems more manageable and more like a part of everyday life.  This process of labeling emotions for children can also help in the child’s development of empathy.  For example, if you notice a child is feeling down and you say, “You’re feeling sad, aren’t you,” the child now feels both understood by the empathic statement and comforted by knowing that there is a word to describe how he/she is feeling.

Other important emotions related to striving for excellence

There are dozens of other emotions or attitudes that could be focused on as being important for the information age. Some are related to the dimension of optimism versus pessimism such as hope versus worry or joy versus sorrow. Others might be considered independently. For example, a case could be made that courage (taking action in the face of fear) versus cowardice (not taking action when felling fearful) is an important issue. With the pace of change such as it is today, everyone is bound to feel concern about the future, about a new environment, or a new learning situation. Becoming immobilized and hoping things will get better is probably a recipe for disaster. The longer we wait to act, to make adjustments to new situations, the more difficult the change when it is finally made.


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