An Optimist, a Cynic, and a Realist Walked into a Bar…

Ok, they didn’t actually. But they do often walk into my office…especially the optimists and the cynics. A great many of my patients over the years fell squarely into one category or the other.

The cynics are typically snarky and bitter. They’re heavy and dreary to sit in a room with. They describe the world and interpret events in unilaterally negative terms: “Oh of course it’s raining; I just washed my car. That’s how it always happens.” The cynics are quite convinced they’re right, and they tend to view anyone who sees the world differently as naïve peasants. They claim that their thinking style is a functional protective strategy, because they don’t like to get their hopes up…only to be let down.

My reply? “Well given that you’re now sitting on a therapy couch, how well has that been working out for you?”

The self-professed optimists incessantly use the catch phrase, “I just try to think positive,” and in this effort, they’ll quip with a smile, “It kind of sucks that it’s raining on the same day that I washed my car, but at least that means that the flowers will bloom soon!” (Yes, they usually end with some excitatory punctuation.) They tend to describe the world in flighty, candy-coated terms, and when a difficult therapy subject is broached, they often show some level of discomfort and quickly wiggle out of the topic by citing a quote or cliché. When I call them out on this, they stubbornly state, “My mom [or uncle or friend or cat] used to always tell me to think positive, so that’s what I try to do.”

My reply? “Well given that you’re now sitting on a therapy couch, how well has that been working out for you?”

My initial approach for both the cynic and the optimist is the same: I give them a crash course in the scientific method. (Yes, I take them all the way back to middle school.) “Science is a systematic and logical approach to discovering how things in the universe work,”1 and the scientific method “is an organized way that helps scientists (or anyone…) answer a question or begin to solve a problem.”2

So neither the cynic or the optimist is being a good scientist. Both are viewing the world and interpreting data through a biased lens. Neither are demonstrating thinking styles that demonstrate objectivity or logic. I usually introduce them to their own bias by drawing an image on a white board for them:

Except, I’m going to be honest with y’all. What my patients see in real life looks more like this:

Cynicism and optimism are just different ends of the same spectrum. Cynicism is biased to see all things negatively, whereas optimism is biased to see all things positively. Neither is accurate or objective. Neither is in touch with reality. In reality, things aren’t all bad or all good. Life is generally an intricate series of “bad,” “good,” and neutral events. Therein lies realism. The true realists of the world observe and account for all data – irrespective of its positive or negative quality. (Cynics often pass themselves off as realists by saying, “I’m just being a realist,” but their use of the term is a bastardization of its definition.) Actual realists take into account all information without a predisposition to interpret it or predict outcomes in one direction or the other. That is an accurate rendition of the scientific method.

As for the application of the scientific method to daily living, I once had a patient (not unlike many people) who had the tendency to mentally beat himself down. His thoughts were riddled with self-doubt. He gave an example of a fitness instructor commenting that the patient was strong. The patient’s automatic assumption was that the fitness instructor was just being nice. I had this patient put his (cynical) hypothesis to the test using a similar graphic3 to the one below:

The patient’s question was, “Was the fitness instructor just being nice?” The patient completely skipped background research and jumped to developing the hypothesis that the fitness instructor was being nice. The patient also skipped the last three steps. So I took him back to testing his hypothesis. I had him develop a list of evidence for and against his hypothesis. In the list of evidence for his hypothesis, he only wrote, “Maybe people are more likely to go back to this fitness instructor if he tells them what they want to hear.” In the list of evidence against his hypothesis, he wrote, “I have been working out regularly. I’ve been able to lift more weight over time. He probably doesn’t actually have anything to gain from lying to me. He probably wouldn’t get much ongoing business if he lied to everyone.” At the end of the exercise, the patient had come up with far more evidence against his hypothesis than for it, so ultimately, he changed his mind and threw out his assumption that the fitness instructor was just being nice.

This is a basic (but solid) example of being a realist. The realist considers all information, whether it supports their existing hypothesis or not. In being a realist, we allow ourselves to experience the world, others, and ourselves more authentically, which can help us better cope with life’s stressors and bad news.


Joye L. Henrie, PhD

November 2017 



  1. Bradford, A. (2017) What Is Science? Live Science.
  2. ScienceBob (Ukn) The Scientific Method.
  3. Learner (Ukn) The Scientific Method.