People differ in the degree to which they possess confidence and hope that future events will turn out positively.
This attitude is called optimism.
Positive psychologists are particularly interested in the attitude of optimism because whether we bring a stable sense of optimism to situations flows on to affect our thoughts, feelings, and actions across a range of domains.
The Life Orientation Test (LOT) is a standard psychological instrument that assesses one’s dispositional level of optimism, providing meaningful insight into possible interventions, such as those to address harmful thought patterns. This makes the instrument a useful tool for any practitioner’s toolkit.
This article will show you how to administer the Life Orientation Test, outlines a conceptualization of optimism, and reviews several successful examples of the scale’s application in research.
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The History of the Life Orientation Test
The Life Orientation Test (LOT) was first created by Michael Scheier and Charles Carver in 1985 and published in Health Psychology.
The impetus to design the measure followed the researchers’ casual observation that some people tend toward a positive outlook, assuming good things will happen to them, while others approach the world with a more pessimistic set of attitudes.
Today, we think of this broad set of attitudes as optimism, which is defined as:
“…an individual difference variable that reflects the extent to which people hold generalized favorable expectancies for their future.”
(Carver, Scheier & Segerstrom, 2010, p. 879)
Whether or not we are optimistic in our nature tends to depend on both our genetic predisposition, environmental factors, and learned attitudes throughout our lives. And although psychologists are not entirely in agreement regarding the factors that produce dispositional optimism, most will agree that an optimistic outlook serves us better throughout life than a pessimistic one.
In particular, Scheier and Carver (1985) sought to understand the implications of such stable attitudes for the positive regulation of behavior, particularly in the context of health.
However, observing that there had previously been little research on the concept of optimism as an antecedent to health-related behaviors, there appeared to be a significant gap in the literature. So, as a starting point, the authors began by designing their own measurement instrument.
Scheier and Carver’s first version of the scale (the LOT) initially comprised twelve items. However, the scale was criticized on the grounds that effects attributable to optimism were indistinguishable from those predicted by traits associated with neuroticism, such as anxiety (Smith, Pope, Rhodewalt & Poulton, 1989).
In other words, scholars were concerned that effects being attributed to optimism as assessed by the LOT were actually the result of a third, unmeasured variable.
While these concern were eventually dispelled following correlational analyzes in Scheier, Carver, and Bridges (1994), the authors proceeded to remove two items in the twelve-item LOT that they believed were conceptually out of alignment with the other items, leading to the formation of the ten-item Life Orientation Test-Revised (LOT-R).
This revised scale is now one of the most commonly used measures of dispositional optimism across both research and practice. The scale has been shown to be applicable to a broad range of populations, including adults in poverty, adolescents with depression, sufferers of social anxiety, and victims of trauma.
Another strength of the scale is its brevity, making it particularly useful from a practitioner’s perspective.
In what follows, we will walk you through research and findings on optimism with a focus on the LOT-R (rather than the LOT) as it is the most up-to-date version of Scheier and Carver’s scale.
How to Administer to LOT-R
The ten-item LOT-R comprises a combination of direct scored, reverse-scored and filler items.
These items are designed to apply to all individuals irrespective of their demographic characteristics and serve to investigate attitudes about future events that we all consciously or unconsciously possess.
All items are presented on 5-point scales, with the following anchors:
4 = I agree a lot
3 = I agree a little
2 = I neither agree nor disagree
1 = I disagree a little
0 = I disagree a lot
The items comprising the scale are as follows:
|Statement||What it measures||Scoring Pattern|
|In uncertain times, I usually expect the best.||Optimism||Direct|
|It’s easy for me to relax.||Filler Item||Not Scored|
|If something can go wrong for me, it will.||Pessimism||Reverse|
|I’m always optimistic about my future.||Optimism||Direct|
|I enjoy my friends a lot.||Filler Item||Not Scored|
|It’s important for me to keep busy.||Filler Item||Not Scored|
|I hardly ever expect things to go my way.||Pessimism||Reverse|
|I don’t get upset too easily.||Filler Item||Not Scored|
|I rarely count on good things happening to me.||Pessimism||Reverse|
|Overall, I expect more good things to happen to me than bad||Optimism||Direct|
==> You can obtain a free copy of the LOT-R, and use it without obtaining permission from the authors, as long as they are cited in research. It has also been translated into many languages.
Additionally, if you’d like to view the original LOT containing the two items that were removed from the LOT-R, you can view the original article, published in Health Psychology.
Scoring and Interpretation of the LOT-R
As shown above, several of the items in the LOT-R are reverse scored. This means that when a respondent gives a value for one of these items, it must be changed to its opposite value on the scale before calculating a final total for the scale.
For instance, if a client responds to the item, “If something can go wrong for me, it will” with a value of 3 (I agree a little), this value must be changed to a 1 before you calculate a final score for the questionnaire. You must then repeat this for all three of the reverse-scored items.
Likewise, ensure that you do not include the values for the filler items in your calculations. The purpose of these items is to disguise the true purpose of the scale from respondents, helping to ensure the validity of the responses, but they are not to be included in your scoring.
Once you have values for all the direct- and reverse-scored items, sum them to return a total. You can then use the following table to interpret the meaning of your client’s final score:
|0-13||Low Optimism (High Pessimism)|
|19-24||High Optimism (Low Pessimism)|
As a practitioner, your interpretation of your client’s score may provide valuable insight into their attitudes regarding the future, potentially highlighting an area for growth or strength that can be leveraged.
Reliability, Validity and Factor Structure
In their original paper, Scheier and Carver (1985) assessed their scale’s internal consistency and test-retest reliability.
Reliability was assessed by calculating Cronbach’s alpha (.76), revealing an acceptable level of internal consistency.
Additionally, the scale was administered to a separate sample of respondents following its development with a four-week interval between administrations to calculate a test-retest correlation. The result (.79) suggested that the scale possessed acceptable stability across time, further evidencing its reliability.
To confirm the scale’s convergent validity, Scheier and Carver (1985) tested whether the scale correlated in appropriate directions with conceptually related scales. At the same time, they also assessed discriminant validity to ensure that the scale was sufficiently distinct from these related concepts.
In support of convergent validity, correlation analyzes revealed that the scale related positively to measures of internal locus of control and self-esteem—two concepts that exhibit conceptual overlap with the notion of optimism. Likewise, the scale was negatively related to measures of hopelessness, depression, stress, alienation, and social anxiety, as expected.
Evidencing discriminant validity, none of the reported correlations were too high (>.60), suggesting that the scale is sufficiently distinct from the above concepts. Likewise, the authors factor analyzed the scale items with those from scales assessing several of the above concepts. In each case, items from the LOT-R tended to load onto their own factor, further evidencing the scale’s distinctiveness.
A final test of the scale’s validity involved assessing its predictive utility in the creators’ original domain of interest–health. To evaluate this, Scheier and Carver (1985) looked at the relationship between their scale and the extent to which their sample (college students) reported being bothered by physical symptoms (e.g., fatigue, muscle soreness) in the final weeks of their semester.
Their hypothesis was that those who scored high on their scale, thereby suggesting the presence of high dispositional optimism, would be better at dealing with their problems than those who were pessimistic due to their positive expectancies. That is, the self-belief that efforts to manage their situation would be successful would lead to more effective coping and ultimately fewer physical symptoms.
In contrast, Scheier and Carver (1985) believed pessimists would view efforts to manage their situation as futile, invest less effort into managing their health and wellbeing, and ultimately exhibit more physical symptoms.
In line with this hypothesizing, Scheier and Carver’s (1985) scale exhibited a significant negative correlation with physical symptoms checklists at two time points, providing support for the LOT-R’s predictive validity.
While these findings provide strong evidence for the reliability and validity of the LOT-R overall, Terrill, Friedman, Gottschalk, and Haaga (2002) caution that researchers and practitioners should be wary of faking upon administration of the scale.
Despite the inclusion of filler items, findings indicate that when instructed to respond to the items in such a way as to present themselves as ‘psychologically healthy,’ participants were able to systematically fake their responses, such that they appeared highly optimistic (Terrill et al., 2002).
These findings suggest that the scale may not be appropriate for use in the context of hiring and selection, but only in contexts where participants are incentivized to respond honestly, such as in a personal development context.
For an alternative scale that has been shown to be robust against faking (Terrill et al., 2002), take a look at Gottschalk’s (1974) Hope Scale.
A Note on Factor Structure
There remains contention about whether it is most appropriate to treat the LOT-R as representing a unidimensional or bi-dimensional construct.
In their original assessment of their scale’s psychometric properties, Scheier and Carver (1985) conducted exploratory and confirmatory factor analysis on their original twelve items. The results revealed that the scale produced acceptable fit according to not only a unidimensional model, but a bi-dimensional model that separated optimism and pessimism.
These findings indicate that it may be acceptable to provide a client with separate scores for optimism (summing items 1, 4, and 10) and pessimism (summing items 3, 7, and 9 without reverse scoring them).
Further, several scholars have published results in support of a two-factor solution for the LOT-R, resulting in calls to reconsider this unidimensional conceptualization (Chang & McBride-Chang, 1996; Marshall & Lang, 1990; Marshall, Wortman, Kusulas, Hervig, & Vickers Jr, 1992).
Ultimately, however, following a consideration of all their analyses, the creators of the scale posit that treating the scale as unidimensional is reasonable for most applications in practice (Carver & Scheier, 2014; Scheier & Carver, 1985).
Scheier and Carver’s (1985) Conceptualization of Optimism
So what are we measuring exactly when we administer the LOT-R?
As noted, the LOT-R assesses optimism, which is an individual difference variable reflecting the extent to which people hold generalized favorable expectancies for their future (Carver, Scheier, & Segerstrom, 2010).
Two components of this definition worth unpacking regard the notions of individual differences and expectancies.
In psychology, an ‘individual difference’ can be thought of as synonymous with the words ‘trait’ and ‘disposition’. In the context of psychology, individual differences are relatively stable, habitual patterns of behavior, thought, and emotion (Kassin, 2003).
One of the most popular models of individual differences in psychology is the OCEAN or Big-5 Model of personality. This model identifies five core traits that all of us possess and positions us on a pole where we are either low, high, or somewhere in the middle on that trait.
Scheier and Carver’s (1985) conceptualization of optimism works the same way.
While it is common in popular psychology to classify people broadly as either ‘optimists’ or ‘pessimists’, these terms actually represent two poles of a spectrum. Thanks to the LOT-R, anyone can easily assess where they sit along the spectrum between these two poles.
The second feature of optimism’s definition regards the notion of expectancies.
There are many models regarding expectancy stemming from the field of psychology and beyond. These theories tend to assume that behavior reflects the pursuit of valued goals, which are desired states or actions.
However, whether or not a person directs resources toward achieving a goal depends on their confidence that a chosen goal can be attained. If a person doubts they can achieve a goal, they may prematurely withdraw efforts or never commence goal pursuit in the first place (Carver, Scheier, & Segerstrom, 2010).
While it is common to think about goals and expectancies at a situational level (Vroom, 1964), a global tendency to hold positive expectancies regarding the future is at the core of the concept of optimism. This means that dispositional optimism is likely to impact how hard we strive to achieve goals across a range of life domains.
Findings from Research Using the LOT-R
Since Scheier and Carver developed the LOT-R for use in the context of health research, the scale has been applied across a range of domains.
Here, we review some of the scale’s most well-known applications in health research and outline some of its more novel applications in studies on relationships.
The LOT-R and Physical Health
Optimism, as assessed using the LOT-R, has been linked to a range of indicators of physical health (Carver & Scheier, 2014).
One eight-year longitudinal study of cardiovascular disease examined quality of life, chronic disease, morbidity, and mortality in a sample of 95,000 women. The results found that those high on dispositional optimism were less likely to develop or die from coronary heart disease and had lower mortality overall (Cauley et al., 2017).
Further, studies suggest that optimism may be protective against stroke, artery blockage, and markers of inflammation (Kim, Park, & Peterson, 2011; Matthews, Räikkönen, Sutton-Tyrrell, & Kuller, 2004). Optimism has also been linked to a stronger immune response and better quality sleep (Lemola et al., 2011; Szondy, 2004; Uchino et al., 2017).
You may be asking: Why do optimists have better health outcomes than pessimists?
Carver and Scheier (2014) put forward two possibilities. First, keeping healthy requires a person to take an active approach to promoting their health. This means avoiding behaviors that are detrimental to health, like smoking, while engaging in positive behaviors, such as regularly exercising.
If a person is seen making these active efforts, underlying these efforts is a belief in their ability to affect their future outcomes positively. Such a person is optimistic about their ability to change their health outcomes for the better, and their goal pursuits are reflective of this underlying belief.
A second reason why optimists may have better health outcomes regards their tendency to experience less distress and more positive emotions in the face of adversity due to their ability to cope effectively. Research suggests that the cumulative effect of this lessened emotional strain may lessen physiological strain, leading to better health in the long term (Wrosch, Scheier & Miller, 2013).
The LOT-R and Mental Health
As you might expect, an optimistic disposition is related to states indicative of psychological wellbeing and good mental health.
Overall, research has found that those high on dispositional optimism exhibit lower levels of anxiety, self-consciousness, alienation, and depression. Optimists also exhibit greater self-esteem and a more internal locus of control (Carver & Scheier, 1985).
Mental health studies on trauma survivors have also shown that people with higher levels of optimism tend to recuperate from the stress-related effects of trauma sooner than those who are pessimistic and anxious (Birkeland, Blix, Solberg, & Heir, 2017).
In particular, optimism has been shown to protect against many of the negative psychological consequences of receiving a medical diagnosis and undergoing medical treatment.
To illustrate, one study of breast cancer patients found that those who reported low levels of pessimism indicated that they had more positive mental health, and those who scored higher on optimism experienced better social and mental functioning (Colby & Shifren, 2011).
Another interesting study by Plomin and colleagues (1992) investigated the link between optimism and various self-reported measures of mental health while simultaneously exploring the genetic and environmental origins of optimism in pairs of same-sex twins raised either together and apart.
Findings revealed that both optimism and pessimism independently predicted depression and life satisfaction, while pessimism on its own predicted paranoid hostility and cynicism. Additionally, it was estimated that approximately 25% of one’s optimism or pessimism is genetic, highlighting the importance of optimism as an inherited driver of mental health.
The LOT-R and Relationships
As noted, optimism reflects a dispositional tendency toward anticipating positive outcomes when pursuing goals. This same logic can be applied to goal pursuit in the context of relationships, which require the active investment of effort to thrive.
For example, one study of newlyweds found that those high on dispositional optimism were more likely to engage in constructive problem-solving in both lab studies and during conflicts in the home. These same newlyweds also exhibited less of a decline in marital wellbeing in the first year of marriage (Neff & Geers, 2013).
Optimists have been shown to thrive in a broad range of social situations. In general, optimists tend to perceive that they have more social support than pessimists and possess larger, more diverse, networks (Andersson, 2012; Vollmann, Antoniw, Hartung, & Renner, 2011). The presence of this social support has been shown to have far-reaching consequences, predicting resilience against loneliness later in life (Rius-Ottenheim et al., 2012).
A Take-Home Message
Winston Churchill said:
A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.
It is clear that optimism changes the way our minds and bodies work. Be that supporting a healthy immune system, strengthening our relationships, or increasing happiness and productivity, there is no area of wellbeing that a sense of optimism leaves untouched.
Before the development of the Life Orientation Test, scholars and practitioners lacked a reliable way to assess the extent to which a person possesses this hopeful, forward-thinking attitude. Now, with the development of the LOT-R, any practitioner can easily detect the presence or absence of optimism, paving the way for a range of helpful interventions.
We hope this article has armed you with a new, practical tool for your toolkit as a psychologist, researcher, or practitioner. And if you decide to use it, let us know how you go in the comments. We’d love to hear from you!
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