Jason Moser, MSU – The Psychology of Optimism

Jason Moser

Jason Moser

Some people are inherently pessimistic. Others tend to focus on the positive and maintain a sunny optimism.

Jason Moser, a Michigan State University psychologist, is digging into the science of this aspect of human nature.

Jason Moser is an assistant professor of psychology at Michigan State University where he runs the Clinical Psychophysiology Lab. He earned his PhD from the University of Delaware in 2009.

Broadly, Dr. Moser is interested in how the different ways people think impact cognitive and emotional processes.  For example, he studies how negative ways of thinking affect reactions to mistakes and attention on the one hand and one’s ability to manage emotions on the other.  He utilizes a multi-method approach to tackle these issues, drawing from clinical, cognitive, and social psychology, psychophysiology and neuroscience.  He aims to apply these ideas and techniques to the study and treatment of anxiety and related problems like depression.

Jason Moser – The Psychology of Optimism


The problem with telling people to “look on the bright side” is that it is easier said than done for some. Although certain people seem to always be wearing rose-tinted glasses, others are constantly worrying about something.

My colleagues and I set out to test whether we could find biological evidence for positive and negative thinkers by looking at their brain activity. People’s self report alone can’t necessarily tell us what it’s like for positive and negative people when they’re asked to look on the bright side.

In the study, we used electrical brain activity, or EEG, to see just how easy or hard it is for different people to think positively. We showed participants graphic images and asked them to put a positive spin on the scenes. For example, when viewing a picture of a masked man holding a knife to a woman’s throat, they could have imagined the woman breaking free and escaping. We also asked participants to fill out questionnaires to get a sense of who tended to be a positive thinker and who was a worrier.

We found that positive thinkers’ brains were much more emotionally quiet than those of the worriers when they were asked to look on the bright side. The worriers actually showed a paradoxical backfiring effect in their brains when asked to put a positive spin on the negative situations. This was the first time we’ve been able to find a brain marker that really distinguishes positive from negative thinkers.

You can’t just tell worriers to think positively – it’s very hard for them. They’ll need a lot more practice and maybe some different strategies like focusing on the here-and-now and getting some distance from their worries. We hope to use this brain activity as a tool to identify worriers early in life to help them practice healthier thinking before their worries spiral out of control.

Read More: Positive, Negative Thinkers’ Brains Revealed