I wrote recently about Wesley So's loss by forfeit in round nine of the U.S. chess championship in St. Louis. It's only fair, then, to note that So, one of the top 10 players in the world, has been on a tear ever since. The 21-year-old won his final two games in St. Louis, and now three of his first four at the Gashimov Memorial in Azerbaijan, one of the strongest tournaments of the year. His current score of 3.5 puts him in first place, ahead of the world champion. In other words, he's been playing great.
What accounts for So's ability to put the controversy behind him? One cannot say for sure, but a good guess is that optimism has a lot to do with it -- specifically, what psychologists call "dispositional" optimism, an attitude in which we expect good outcomes rather than bad. It turns out to matter a great deal what stories we tell in explaining how we got to where we are. The more positive our stories, the better we tend to do.
Studies of teenagers tend to confirm the thesis that "explanatory style" is a strong predictor of resilience. Explanatory style refers to the way an athlete reasons about his or her own performance. An optimistic explanatory style involves attributing bad outcomes to some particular event ("I was sick that day"). A pessimistic style invites a more global explanation ("I'm no good at this stuff"). The more optimistic the athlete's explanatory style, the easier to shrug off a bad performance.
Although setting up a controlled study isn't possible, there are nevertheless similar indications for elite athletes. Those who tend to dismiss losses and predict victories seem to do better than those who wallow in their defeats. Athletes who say "I was lucky today" do not perform as well as those who extol their own virtues.
Top-level chess shares many attributes with athletic competitions, and we should expect similar results. After So was forfeited for a rules violation, he immediately blamed a family problem -- that is, a nonrecurring event that indicated nothing about his skills. Evidently, the explanation helped him to put the defeat in perspective -- and into the past.
This ability to focus forward puts him in good company. Anatoly Karpov, long-time chess champion of the world and one of the greatest players in the history of the game, had this to say about his difficult 1978 title match against Viktor Korchnoi:
"Do you know what distinguishes a competitor from a non-competitor? If a non-competitor loses successive games, he goes to pieces and gives up, whereas a competitor continues moving forward, because he knows that the bad run will somewhere come to an end, and things will improve."
There's an old chess saw about a great master complaining that he has never defeated a healthy opponent. But players who make excuses for their defeats may actually have better outcomes. "She's just a better player than I am" isn't dispositional optimism. "I'll get him next time" is.
Optimism is an activity as much as an attitude. Social psychologists point to the importance of "self-efficacy" -- not a generalized belief that things will just work out somehow, but a more specific confidence that one can actually be an agent in improving one's own performance. The role of self-efficacy has long been understood as an explanatory variable in the classroom performance of young children, but it has lately been studied at more complex levels of education, and turns out to be a good predictor -- for example, of success in medical school.
Can such an attitude be taught or is it innate? An increasing body of recent work points toward biological factors influencing resilience. Studies suggest that variations in the OXTR gene play a major role in whether an individual tends toward pessimism or optimism. Yet many researchers continue to believe environment to be at least as important. It is more than trivially true that it makes a difference whether parents and educators signal to young people that they can succeed.
Whatever the explanation, it does seem that those who tell optimistic stories about their failures do better the next time around than those who don't. We're often irritated by people who make excuses when they lose and brag when they win, but they might just have the right attitude. And so does Wesley So, who so far has not let his performance in what he called the worst tournament of his life keep him from rampaging through the next one.