We spill a lot of ink around here (or at least move a lot of pixels around) encouraging people to think and act like long-term investors, not short-term traders. It’s times like these, when the market is in decline, that really test your investor mettle. And it’s times like these when it’s especially important to consider how you talk about what’s happening in the market—to others and to yourself.

Explanatory style

In his book, Learned Optimism, University of Pennsylvania Psychologist Martin Seligman writes about the importance of understanding your “explanatory style.” That’s how you tend to explain bad events, and there’s a distinct difference between people who give up easily when times get tough and people who push through.

There are three aspects to a person’s explanatory style: permanence, pervasiveness, and personalization.

Seligman described those who give up easily as pessimists because they tend to describe bad events as permanent (“I’ll never recover from this downturn”), make pervasive/universal statements (“It’s going to be a horrible year in the market”), and personalize/internalize the cause (“I’m a lousy investor”). He described those who persevere as optimists because they tend to describe bad events as temporary (“Periodic downturns, corrections, and even bear markets come with the territory of being an investor”), make specific statements (“The first few days of 2016 have been rough”), and externalize the cause (“China’s problems seem to be impacting global markets”).

Many applications

Seligman studied everyone from politicians to athletes and found a strong correlation between people’s explanatory style and their results.

In one study, he and a team combed through some 15,000 sports pages covering two entire baseball seasons, studying the quotes of various players. They found that the teams best able to overcome setbacks or to persist through difficulties were the ones whose players tended to explain their challenges as temporary and cited specific external issues (“We lost because they made the plays tonight.”). Those who struggled tended to explain their team’s situations as permanent and cited universal internal issues (“We can’t hit.”).

Is it better to be optimistic?

Seligman’s point was not to turn everyone into blind optimists, only to help save pessimists from acting on their most dire instincts: “When bad events strike,” he wrote, “you don’t have to look at them in their most permanent, pervasive, and personal light, with the crippling results that pessimistic explanatory style entails.”

For investors, the most potentially “crippling results” at times like this are usually making emotional, fear-based decisions, such as selling into a downturn.

Seligman’s antidote? Challenge your pessimistic beliefs to see if they are really true.

Before you act on your most pessimistic investing instincts, it may help to reread the following articles:

How do you find yourself talking about the market in these early days of 2016?