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7 Myths About Optimism and Pessimism

Defensive pessimism can help to manage anxiety and provide a sense of control.

Key points

  • Past research has demonstrated that optimism can benefit happiness, relationships, and health.
  • But defensive pessimism—setting low expectations and considering worst-case scenarios—can help reduce anxiety.
  • Defensive pessimism is most useful when negative outcomes are important to consider and when they can be prevented.
CC0/Unsplash/David Travis
Source: CC0/Unsplash/David Travis

Optimism is among the most celebrated human qualities. Many studies have shown that optimists tend to fare better in life than their pessimistic friends—at least when it comes to physical and mental health, resilience, relationships, career, pain management, and even longevity. Being of good cheer and expecting the best, as science and cultural dogmas have us believe, will lead to the best.

But is it all that straightforward? Is optimism always adaptive, and is there really nothing good about being a pessimist?

Psychologist Julie Norem’s research suggests otherwise.

For almost four decades, Dr. Norem has been studying the phenomenon of defensive pessimism—the cognitive strategy of setting low expectations and considering worst-case scenarios of future events. It turns out, the habit of not getting your hopes high can help with managing anxiety and gaining a sense of control.

In her latest research, Dr. Norem found that the use of defensive pessimism was correlated with taking more precautions during the Covid-19 pandemic (e.g., hand-washing, mask-wearing, social distancing), and less risky behaviors (e.g., meeting inside with people you don’t live with). “Without a doubt, defensive pessimists are more anxious than their optimistic counterparts,” explains Dr. Norem, “but they also actively make more effort to manage their risk.”

One of the biggest surprises from Dr. Norem’s research is the public’s hesitation towards the mere idea of there being something positive about pessimism. Yet, perhaps ironically, when people discover that they are defensive pessimists, many report feeling relief and validation.

Here is Dr. Norem, in her own words, on 7 myths about optimism and pessimism, 2 examples when defensive pessimism is most effective, and 2 ways to foster optimism.

1. One is either an optimist or a pessimist.

False. People’s perspectives vary from domain to domain. For example, you can be optimistic about your social life and pessimistic about your work. Furthermore, we can consider optimism-pessimism as a tendency to expect good or bad things (trait level); or as how prone people are to experience positive-negative affect (temperamental level).

These are tendencies—they are not deterministic of specific expectations in specific situations. While these tendencies can be influenced by genetics, they merely point us in a certain direction. We still have freedom to move.

2. Optimists are born, not made.

This myth is too all-encompassing to be true. While we don’t have much evidence that we can get rid of our tendencies to experience negative affect, cognitive therapy studies suggest that people can learn to revise how they look at situations. It’s not easy, but it’s possible.

3. Being an optimist is always better than being a pessimist.

False. Research from Japan finds that defensive pessimists do better than optimists in terms of affect and actual performance. Studies from the U.S. show that, on average, defensive pessimists do as well as optimists. Defensive pessimists have more negative affect, but not necessarily less positive affect.

In the U.S., the commonly held belief is that when it comes to positive affect, the more, the better. If you are feeling negative emotions, you are often motivated to get rid of them, because it makes you feel like you are failing at something. In other cultures, including Japan, the ideal affective life is more balanced. A well-adjusted person recognizes that there are negatives and positives in most things in life and allows herself to experience both.

4. Pessimists are more likely to get depressed than optimists.

True—in terms of general traits, pessimists are more at risk of depression. However, the overall picture is more complicated. Research shows that defensive pessimists are actually less likely to get depressed than other pessimists, and not significantly more likely than optimists. What increases the risk of depression is when pessimism is combined with hopelessness. That is, when pessimists don’t feel like they have any control over their circumstances.

Here, the distinction between defensive pessimism and fatalistic pessimism is important. Defensive pessimists are oriented towards making things better in their lives or getting things done. Fatalistic pessimists, on the other hand, might have the same underlying tendency to experience negative emotions, but instead of actively looking for what they could do in the world, they assume that they are fated to be the way they are and that there is no hope. That’s the pathway that tends to lead to depression.

5. Optimism is a key ingredient in human flourishing, while pessimism is a key impediment to well-being.

This myth is overly simplified and reductionistic. If you define flourishing primarily in terms of positive emotions, optimism indeed makes it much more likely for you to experience positive emotions. But since that is correlated with the temperamental tendency to experience positive emotions, it’s not clear what comes first. It’s also unclear that what relates positive emotions to optimism is relevant to people who aren’t optimistic—it’s not like people can just pretend to be optimistic and things will necessarily get better for them.

Source: CC0/Pixabay/coffee

6. Pessimists can also be happy.

True. The value that people place on happiness as an outcome varies enormously. Defensive pessimists certainly have many moments of happiness and enjoy many things in their lives. But that’s not where their focus is. Instead, they want to not have regrets and work towards their goals. They want to feel as if they did their best in a given situation and they want to manage their anxiety so it doesn’t interfere with their goals.

Moreover, defensive pessimists are able to tolerate negative emotions. For many people, once they recognize that they are anxious, their primary goal becomes to get rid of anxiety and to feel happy. The strength of defensive pessimists lies in their ability to say, “I recognize that I feel anxious. I know what to do with this anxiety and I’m not going to let it get in my way.” It’s different than denying it or trying to suppress or avoid it.

7. There are no downsides to optimism.

False. In the moment, optimism almost always looks good, because it’s strongly correlated with feeling happy. The downside of optimism comes when you look at how people plan and anticipate future events. Pessimists are never surprised when things go wrong, while optimists are often taken aback by setbacks. An unanticipated negative outcome is usually experienced as more negative than if one was expecting it. If you are always expecting wonderful things to happen and you are continuously disappointed, that’s not very adaptive.

John McCain famously wrote about optimists suffering the most in prison camps. They kept telling themselves that they would be free by a certain date, and when that never happened, they got deeply depressed. That’s a very extreme case, but it does capture part of the premise. The other risk of optimism is that always thinking positively might make you overconfident, and in turn, lead you to ignore potential risks and problems that you need to take seriously.

Furthermore, research shows that optimists do really well with immune challenges in the short term. When your immune function charges in with a big initial reaction, it can be good if you are fighting a cold. But the longer the challenges continue, the more their immune system gets into trouble—you can’t keep that level of fighting up in your immune system.

When Defensive Pessimism is Most Helpful

  • With negative outcomes that are possible are important
  • When there are things you can do to prevent these outcomes

If you are in a situation where disaster is certain and there’s nothing you can do, defensive pessimism is not going to help. Similarly, if you are in a situation where the outcome is not that important (for example, when planning which route to take to the grocery store), defensive pessimism may cost you more than it gives you back. On the other hand, if you are in a situation where the negative outcomes can be serious, defensive pessimism can be very adaptive. For example, I would prefer to have a defensive pessimist be in charge of a nuclear reactor so that they can anticipate every possible thing that might go wrong and work to prevent it.

How to Be More Optimistic

  • Try to regularly spend time reflecting on times when things have gone well in your life. Doing this will allow these positive memories to become more immediately available for recall, thus helping you in future scenarios.
  • Try generating different possible framings of a given situation and notice that the framing may not be inherent in the situation. This will help you realize that you may have a choice of how you look at situations. When possible, exercise that choice.

Many thanks to Julie Norem for her time and insights. Dr. Norem is Margaret Hamm Professor of Psychology at Wellesley College. She is the author of a number of books, including The Positive Power of Negative Thinking.

LinkedIn image: HBRH/Shutterstock. Facebook image: fizkes/Shutterstock


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