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12 Aug 2010

Glass Half Full Or Half Empty, Who’ll Go Get More Water?

In the glass half full or half empty metaphor, people who see it as half empty are more likely to get more water.

Is the glass half full or half empty?

People use the glass half full or half empty metaphor in many ways. I use it much in problem solving workshops.

For the most part we see this metaphor to convey the merits of a positive attitude. If it’s positive, one will see the glass as half full. If negative, half empty. In short, the message is that positivity beats negativity.

In problem solving and innovation though, seeing things from another view plays a key role. For instance, how can seeing the glass as half empty be a plus?

Another View Of Glass Half Full or Half Empty

So, to begin let’s run with the thought that positivity is good. Taking an idea to extreme helps in problem solving. It brings out its downside. It also helps one to begin to see the event from another view. To the point, how could positivity be bad?

Here two psychological forces about people come into play:

  1. They have an optimism bias even pessimists do.
  2. They fear loss much more than they enjoy gain.

Take a negative person. Yes, she might think things will turn out bad. On the other hand, she most likely thinks things will turn out even worse for you. She’ll do better. That’s optimism bias.

As for the second force, people fear losing something close to three times more than they enjoy gaining it. For example, people will work harder not to lose a bonus than to earn one. Investing sees this all the time. Investors are more likely to hold onto a bad stock than a good one. Selling a bad stock admits a loss. Selling a good one brings a gain.

Fear Of Loss Is Much Greater Than The Joy Of Gain

Therefore, when it comes to the glass half full or half empty, those who see the latter will feel a greater sense of loss. Those who see it as half full are more likely to think there is nothing to worry about.They still have a lot of water.

I witnessed a real life example of this when I took a new sales manager to meet his people. In one office the sales rep was out. The manager saw and pointed to a picture of the rep’s four children and wife. He said, “I love to see that. It means he’ll be real hungry to sell and support his family.”

It’s also why crises motivate change in people far more than good times do. It’s why a water sales rep would rather have a glass-half-empty client than a glass-half-full one.

So, the question becomes, “Is the glass in need of water or is it all right?”

9 Responses

  1. You’ve brought up such an excellent point, Mike. I’ve been wrestling with this very optimistic vs pessimistic analogy off and on for the past few years. Especially in today’s world of what I like to call positive pop psychology. Sometimes those that are heavily entrenched in the ‘optimistic’ side of the house in terms of ‘don’t think bad thoughts’, watch your attitude, etc…are often deeply entrenched in denial and are either avoiding reality themselves or expecting someone else to deny their own reality. ‘It’s not as bad as it seems.’ ‘If you just change your attitude, life will turn around for you.’ etc.

    I say NO to a great deal of it. I tried to buy that swampland message and it does NOT work. The only thing it really did was threaten other people around me less while not improving my own circumstances. If that makes sense. (They could be ‘happier’ if I PRETENDED to be happier.)

    It’s a major misconception to think that if we only ‘think happy thoughts’ 24/7, then we can have absolute control over our lives and nothing bad will ever happen. lol This is so not true. At all.

    It seems that only when we come out of denial and are willing to FEEL exactly what we are feeling..only THEN can we really take action to meet legitimate wants and needs. Once a legitimate need is met, people suddenly become amazingly more positive and optimistic!

    RSA Animate has a great video on this concept as well. It’s titled ‘Smile or Die’.



    1. Mike Lehr

      Very good video, Samantha. Thank you for sharing. As Barbara Ehrenreich points out, it’s really about balance. Our problems might be great and dangerous, but that doesn’t mean we surrender to them. It also doesn’t mean that we ignore them just so we can maintain the happy bubble people might want us to have. Nevertheless, while Barbara criticizes the “happy” movement, the challenge is how do we survive and thrive in a culture consumed by it? This is where our relationships are important. It’s also realizing that there is a difference between behaving happy and being happy. People may want us to behave happily but that doesn’t mean we must be happy. It’s when we do the former and believe our own act that we get into trouble and neglect the real problems and challenges around us. This is the point where our relationships help us. All we need are a few good ones, and we can withstand and thrive in the prevailing atmosphere Ehrenreich describes. ~Mike

      1. ‘How do we survive and thrive in a culture consumed by it?’

        Excellent question, Mike. This is very much our challenge and opportunity. I agree that relationships are a critical component to this. In my experience, if I have found that if I’m predominantly surrounded by people that are stuck in denial themselves and/or have to control everyone by insisting on maintaining the ‘happy bubble’, I either have to deny my own reality to survive it, or I’ve left the environment. (i.e. In childhood, had no choice but to deny/dissociate in order to survive. Once I could leave home, I did.)

        In order to ‘thrive’ without falling into denial ourselves, it is essential to find people that aren’t stuck on either end of the spectrum on a chronic basis. People that are willing to tackle issues as they arise without denying and sweeping them under the rug. While also being able to enjoy the good times in life and moments of joy that come along without ruining it by worrying about what ‘might’ happen next. Admittedly, depending on what crops up in life, it’s not always easy to do.

        As for the difference between behaving happy and being happy, I do understand that component. Especially in business. If we are having a difficult day, it’s important that we don’t take it out on clients/customers/patients, etc. That’s simply a part of life and not so much what I was referring to. And if we are struggling with something that has had a huge impact on us emotionally that we can’t cope well, then it’s best to take responsibility and not go to work that day or take some time off, etc. (i.e. death in the family, illness, etc)

        Thanks for your reply Mike. 🙂


  2. PS: One of the ideas that generally come to mind for me on this is looking at images of starving children. Literally. Skin on bones. Does that child need to change his/her attitude and look at the glass as being half full and suddenly their life is going to improve?


    That child needs FOOD. First and foremost. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs 101. Feeding a starving child may not address the root ’cause’ in terms of resources to ensure an adequate supply, etc. Yet feeding the child will meet their most immediate need.

    1. Mike Lehr

      Yes, you’re right, Samantha. I would also ask what can be done to avoid this? What can they do to avoid this? Yes, we can give food, but what else? Each situation is going to present different answers to these questions. And yes, just thinking about food isn’t going to stave off starvation. Thank you for visiting. You always give much to ponder. ~Mike

      1. Well your blog seems to keep giving me quite a bit to ponder myself, Mike. Actually, if I would have commented on every post I’ve read here so far, we’d probably be able to knock out a book or something easily. 🙂

        I found your key point to be this: ‘Each situation is going to present different answers to these questions.’ I wholeheartedly agree.

        Although I didn’t clarify in the above example, it might be helpful if I shared the reason why I used it. For people who have had traumatic experiences denied or invalidated on a chronic basis, it can be extremely difficult if next to impossible for someone to validate their OWN experiences. Sometimes I have found that when I view another persons circumstances, if I am able to empathize and validate THEIR experience, I then have an easier time turning that around and validating my own. If that makes sense.

        Stumbling upon images of starving children on the internet is what allowed me to see the holes in some of the positive thinking teachings that are popular today. It was like having an a-ha moment of ‘Wait a minute! How can that teaching be true in this case? These people aren’t going to be able to change their circumstances or prevent starvation simply by trying to look on the bright side of life! Not only that, but I don’t see any smiles on any of their faces either so how could they begin to even GENERATE positive thoughts in that condition and state of health? They can’t!’

        So that’s when I started to look at some of those modern ‘teachings’ more closely and asking is it really true? It is also what prompted one of my posts entitled ‘The First Step to Happiness’. http://tweetconnection.com/2012/03/12/the-first-step-to-happiness/

        ‘The first step to happiness is the point at which authentic human connection meets genuine love.’

        That quote sums up my whole post. We are not islands unto ourselves and cannot generate happiness all on our own. (long term) We are meant to co-exist with others rather then in isolation. Yet, it takes more then hollow words to form authentic and meaningful connections with people. Telling someone they need to change their attitude or ‘just be happy’ doesn’t establish meaningful connection. Caring enough by way of actions that go beyond mere words IS what establishes meaningful connection.

        I also referenced a video on The Freedom Writers. This was a movie based on the real life events that occurred in California during the riots in the early 90’s.


        We have THOUSANDS of children just like this in this country that are not born and raised in a ‘happy bubble’ family and neighborhood environment. How do these positive pop psychology teachings help any of them? ‘They attracted it into their life.’ Really? They asked to be born? They are somehow responsible for the actions and choices of their parents or someone else’s rage and choices? I don’t think so. (Questions are not directed at YOU Mike, but more rhetorical and to cause people to think about these things. 🙂

        On one of your other posts we touched on the concepts of the need for mirroring in our relationships. In the Freedom Writers video (link above) there is a scene that starts around 6:33 between Erin Gruel (played by Hilary Swank) and one of her students. She asked him to grade himself on an assignment and he gave himself an ‘F’. She asks him why and he said, ‘Because that’s what I feel that I deserve.’

        And this was what I was getting at on the other post when it comes to mirroring. Unless a child has their own worth and value MIRRORED to them in some way by another, they will NOT be able to generate this on their own. They will NOT be able to form a good foundation of beliefs around their own sense of value and self-worth.

        Her response? She didn’t respond by saying…’Boy, you need to change your attitude! With an attitude like that, don’t expect to amount to anything in this world. You won’t be able to be successful….(fill in the blank). No. She care enough to say she believed in him enough that she wasn’t going to LET him fail. I love the part where she says, ‘I SEE who you are. And you are not failing.’

        She mirrored his worth to him by BELIEVING in him. She didn’t just SAY it to those kids. She showed it. And it turned their lives around for the better.

        And that is what makes the REAL difference in people’s lives. Whether that is in our own country, or dealing with starving children in Africa.

        Thanks again for writing such great posts. 🙂


  3. Marilyn

    Nice – also the discussion. I guess if you’re still alive, you are indeed something of an optimist. 😉 And: as long as the proverbial glass is at least half full, optimists have more fun.

    1. Mike Lehr

      That’s a way to look at it, Marilyn. As the research shows, even the most severe pessimists have an optimism bias. Thank you for stopping by and leaving your insights. ~Mike

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