Half-full or half-empty?

“To the pessimist, the glass is half-empty. To the optimist, it is half-full.” (Unknown)


Do you see the glass as half-empty or half-full? “It depends on whether you are pouring or drinking,” says Bill Cosby. Neither, says George Carlin. “I see a glass that’s twice as big as it needs to be.” “Who cares?” say countless Internet jokers, “Just drink it.”

The gags accentuate the central point that there is always more than one way to see a situation. Nor is perspective simply a matter of seeing facts differently, it is also about the attitude one chooses to adopt: optimistic, pessimistic, ironic or dismissive.

It’s easy to make too much of this benign relativism. The fact that there is a choice of descriptors does not mean that there are no objective facts. You can see a pint glass as half-empty or half-full, but there is only one correct answer as to how much liquid it contains: 284ml. Yes, much depends on perspective, but a great deal does not.

Indeed, sometimes it’s not a matter of perspective, but of context. Cosby’s answer illustrates this well: when you’re in the middle of pouring a drink it is halfway to being full; when in the middle of drinking it, it’s halfway to being empty. This isn’t a matter of how you choose to see it, but a matter of how things really are.

The reason the half-full/half-empty glass question is quite a good test for optimism and pessimism is that it works by stripping away context  to probe what your default setting is: to perceive what you don’t have or what you do have. But in real life, there is always a context, and so it is not always a simple choice as to how we see things. Different descriptors may not be simply right or wrong, but they can be better or worse.

Not every situation requires that requires judgment is comparable to the half-empty glass. Rather, we need the serenity to accept things that just are, the imagination to see things which could be viewed differently, and the wisdom to know the difference between the two.

(Adapted from Julian Baggini’s ‘Should You Judge This Book by Its Cover?’)


~ by irwin on February 14, 2012.

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