Teaching Current Directions

Teaching Current Directions in Psychological Science

Aimed at integrating cutting-edge psychological science into the classroom, Teaching Current Directions in Psychological Science offers advice and how-to guidance about teaching a particular area of research or topic in psychological science that has been the focus of an article in the APS journal Current Directions in Psychological Science. Current Directions is a peer-reviewed bimonthly journal featuring reviews by leading experts covering all of scientific psychology and its applications and allowing readers to stay apprised of important developments across subfields beyond their areas of expertise. Its articles are written to be accessible to nonexperts, making them ideally suited for use in the classroom.

Visit David G. Myers and C. Nathan DeWall’s blog “Talk Psych.” Similar to the APS Observer column, the mission of their blog is to provide weekly updates on psychological science.

Putting Feelings Into Foreign Words

The Powers and Perils of Optimism

Putting Feelings Into Foreign Words

By C. Nathan DeWall

Caldwell-Harris, C. L. (2015). Emotionality differences between a native and foreign language: Implications for everyday life. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 24, 214–219.

Embarking on international travel can fill our minds with pleasant daydreams and worst-case scenarios. What disaster often inches its way to the top of our worst-case scenarios list? Traveling to a foreign country and being accused of committing a crime. Assuming we’re innocent, we would fight to clear our name, and to establish rapport with the authorities, we might try to answer their questions in the local language. But something strange occurs: Our strategy backfires. Although our native country’s news outlets tout our innocence and authenticity, the local media demonizes us as callous and unemotional.

How could people from two countries view the same person so differently? Nationalistic pride does not tell the whole story, reports Catherine L. Caldwell-Harris (2015). Without our trying, our words become less emotional when we speak them in a foreign tongue. We might feel sad, lonely, or desperate, but uttering those words in a foreign language takes away their emotional weight.

Compared with one’s native language, expressing feelings in a foreign language causes smaller skin conductance responses and attentional blinks (Colbeck & Bowers, 2012; Harris, Ayçiçeği, & Gleason, 2003). One study even showed that lies, when told in a foreign language, had identical physiological patterns as truths (Caldwell-Harris & Ayçiçeği-Dinn, 2009).

Each year, nearly 300,000 American students study abroad (Institute of International Education, 2014). Almost 900,000 foreign students come to study in the United Sates. Understanding the power of language, native or foreign, will help our students become better global citizens. To bring this cutting-edge research into the classroom, instructors may use the following activity.

Instructors can ask students to consider how native and foreign language ability may influence close relationships. Ask students to think of a person they love. Next, have students use their smartphones, laptops, or other electronic devices to identify how to say the phrase, “I love you,” in ten foreign languages. Have students rate their familiarity (1=not at all familiar to 7=extremely familiar) and fluency (1=can’t communicate easily or accurately to 7=can communicate extremely easily and accurately) with each language.

Once they have selected their ten languages, ask students to say “I love you” in each language out loud as if they are speaking to their loved one. If instructors wish to split up the activity between two class sessions, they can ask students to say the words to the actual person (virtually or face to face). Students can then rate how much they felt an emotional response when they said “I love you” in each language (1=not at all strongly to 7=extremely strong).

Ask students to discuss how their emotional reaction differed across the various languages. Did they experience a weaker emotional response when they said “I love you” in a foreign language? How might this effect influence relationships in which both members do not share a native language? How might parenting styles differ when parents speak different native languages (e.g., Spanish and Japanese), and they raise a child who speaks yet another native language (e.g., English)?

Learning a foreign language begins with simple phrases, graduates to verb conjugation, and extends to conversation and appreciation of cultural history. What Rosetta Stone doesn’t teach is how a foreign language takes the edge off of our emotions. Whether we are Finns speaking French or Turks speaking Tacana, our emotional expressions lose their strength when spoken in a foreign language. In international travel, as  all other parts of life, dreaded scenarios usually do not materialize. But if you find yourself in an interrogation room in a foreign land, you might do well to stick to your native tongue.

The Powers and Perils of Optimism

By David G. Myers

Shepperd, J. A., Waters, E., Weinstein, N. D., & Klein, W. M. (2015). A primer on unrealistic optimism. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 24, 232–237.

There is so much to say for positive thinking. A small sampler:

Self-esteem predicts marriage satisfaction, physical and mental health, and job success and satisfaction — and that’s even after controlling for gender, socioeconomic status, and intelligence (Orth & Robins, 2013, 2014).

Self-affirmation interventions lower prejudice (Fein & Spencer, 1997) and boost the school grades of at-risk youth (Cohen & Sherman, 2014).

Internal locus of control and self-efficacy predict work and school success and healthier living (Bandura, 2013; Lefcourt, 2014).

Dispositional optimism (along with an optimistic explanatory style) protects against depression and boosts health and longevity (Seligman, 2006).

But separated from its complementary truth, the truth of positive thinking is only a half-truth. The other half-truth is that self-serving pride can produce intolerance of those “inferior,” the assumption of credit and displacement of blame, and conflicted relationships. Moreover, limitless expectations breed frequent frustrations. Life’s greatest disappointments, as well as its highest achievements, arise from exalted expectations. And, as Neil Weinstein (1980) observed in a psychology classic (cited more than 1,500 times), exalted expectations are commonplace. Illusory optimism — “an unrealistic optimism about life events” — is pervasive.

Thirty-five years and more than 1,000 studies later, James Shepperd (University of Florida), Erika Waters (Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis), Neil Weinstein (University of Arizona), and William Klein (National Cancer Institute) (2015) lucidly recap what we have learned about “unrealistic optimism.” What is it? When and why does it occur? And what are its consequences?

Unrealistic optimism is predicting a personal future that will be more favorable (a) than is probable or (b) than one’s peers will experience. When 56% of high school seniors believe they will earn a graduate degree — though only 9% are likely to do so — that is “unrealistic absolute optimism” (Reynolds, Stewart, MacDonald, & Sischo, 2006). When most students perceive themselves as more likely than their classmates to get a high-paying job and own a nice home, and as less likely to have a heart attack or get cancer, that is “unrealistic comparative optimism” (Waters et al., 2011). The latter phenomenon lurks in Freud’s joke about the husband who told his wife, “If one of us dies, I shall move to Paris” (2013, p. 387).

People are especially likely to experience unrealistic optimism for relatively infrequent negative events, such as having lung cancer. And they experience unrealistic optimism for events that seem controllable (such as plans to exercise, diet, and stop smoking). But unrealistic optimism drops when people approach a “moment of truth,” as when students are about to get their exams back.

Unrealistic optimism appears to be partly motivational (it enables good feelings). And it seems to be partly informational: We know others less well than ourselves, and we may compare ourselves with mental prototypes of, say, car accident victims (fast-driving drinkers).

Although optimism pays emotional dividends and enables our strivings, unrealistic optimism exacts costs. When inflated expectations go unfulfilled, the outcomes may be disappointment, regret, and lower self-esteem. When tasks take longer than optimistic “planning fallacy” projections indicate, deadlines may go unmet. When overestimating one’s invulnerability to disease or accidents, misfortune may lie ahead.

Unlike overconfidence, which results in underpreparation, defensive pessimism anticipates problems and motivates coping. Positive thinking is adaptive, but negative thinking also has its place. Success in life grows from optimism that sustains hope seasoned with realism that anticipates difficulties.

To help students appreciate the ubiquity of unrealistic optimism about seemingly controllable life events, invite them to respond to this questionnaire about possible health problems (inspired by Weinstein, 1982):

Compared to your classmates, what do you think are the chances that the following health problems will trouble you at some point in the future? Use this scale:

-3 = much below average

-2 = below average

-1 = slightly below average

0 = average

+1 = slightly above average

+2 = above average

+3 = much above average

Compared to my classmates, the chances of my experiencing this problem are

__1. Arthritis

__2. Clogged arteries

__3. Pneumonia

__4. Being 40 or more pounds overweight

__5. Laryngitis

__6. Alcoholism

__7. Being killed in an auto accident

__8. Lung cancer

Invite students to average their responses to the odd-number items and then to the even-numbered items. Then ask, “How many of you were, on average, more optimistic about the even-numbered items than the odd-numbered items?” On the even-numbered items — each related to controllable behaviors — Weinstein’s Rutgers students (tested in his original experiment) demonstrated considerably more unrealistic comparative optimism than they expressed on the uncontrollable odd-numbered items.

The take-home lesson? Although generally adaptive, optimism becomes unrealistic — and risky — when we foresee our futures as improbably promising and view ourselves as immune to dangers that others face. To flourish, and to avoid perils that range from personal failure at school to collective climate catastrophe, requires forward-looking rationality. It requires steering between the rock of self-assured denial (“No problem”) and the hard place of dark despair (“It’s hopeless”). It requires realistic optimism.


Bandura, A. (2013). The role of self-efficacy in goal-based motivation. In E. A. Locke & G. P. Latham (Eds.), Development in goal setting and task performance (pp. 147–157). New York, NY: Taylor & Francis.

Caldwell-Harris, C. L., & Ayçiçeği-Dinn, A. (2009). Emotion and lying in a non-native language. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 71, 193–204.

Cohen, G. L., & Sherman, D. K. (2014). The psychology of change: Self-affirmation and social psychological intervention. Annual Review of Psychology, 65, 333–371.

Colbeck, K. L., & Bowers, J. S. (2012). Blinded by taboo words in L1 but not L2. Emotion, 12, 217–222.

Harris, C. L., Ayçiçeği, A., & Gleason, J. B. (2003). Taboo words and reprimands elicit greater autonomic reactivity in a first language than in a second language. Applied Psycholinguistics, 24, 561–579.

Institute of International Education (2014). Open doors data: Fast facts sheet. Retrieved from: www.iie.org/Research-and-Publications/Open-Doors/Data/Fast-Facts

Fein, S., & Spencer, S. J. (1997). Prejudice as self-image maintenance: Affirming the self through derogating others. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73, 31–44.

Freud, S. (2013). The interpretation of dreams (A. A. Brill, Trans.). New York, NY: Macmillan. (Original work published 1899)

Lefcourt, H. M. (2014). Locus of control: Current trends in theory and research. New York, NY: Psychology Press. (Original work published in 1982)

Orth, U., & Robins, R. W. (2013). Understanding the link between low self-esteem and depression. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 22, 455–460.

Orth, U., & Robins, R. W. (2014). The development of self-esteem. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 23, 381–387.

Reynolds, J., Stewart, M., MacDonald, R., & Sischo, L. (2006). Have adolescents become too ambitious? High school seniors’ educational and occupational plans, 1976 to 2000. Social Problems, 53, 186–206.

Seligman, M. E. P. (2006). Learned optimism: How to change your mind and your life. New York, NY: Vintage Books.

Waters, E. A., Klein, W. M. P., Moser, R. P., Yu, M., Waldron, W. R., McNeel, T. S., & Freedman, A. N. (2011). Correlates of unrealistic risk beliefs in a nationally representative sample. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 34, 225–235.

Weinstein, N. D. (1980). Unrealistic optimism about future life events. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 39, 806–820.

Weinstein, N. D. (1982). Unrealistic optimism about susceptibility to health problems. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 5, 441–460.

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