The Positive Power of Negative Thinking
For some people, happiness sabotages success.
Posted Oct 16, 2013
If you want to achieve a major goal, conventional wisdom says to think positive. Picture yourself delivering the perfect presentation, and absorb the energy of the audience. Envision the ideal job interview, and imagine yourself on cloud nine when you get the offer. Although these strategies sound compelling, it turns out that they often backfire. Many of us are more successful when we focus on the reasons that we’re likely to fail.
In a series of clever studies, the psychologists Julie Norem and Nancy Cantor compared strategic optimists and defensive pessimists. If you’re a strategic optimist, you envision the best possible outcome and then eagerly plan to make it happen. If you’re a defensive pessimist, even if you’ve been successful in the past, you know this time could be different. You start picturing all the things that could go wrong. What if I spill coffee on the interviewer? What if I accidentally deliver the presentation in a foreign language? What if I forget my own name?
Most people assume that strategic optimists outperform defensive pessimists, because they benefit from confidence and high expectations. Norem and Cantor found that defensive pessimists were more anxious and set lower expectations for themselves in analytical, verbal, and creative tasks. Yet they didn’t perform any worse.
“At first, I asked how these people were able to do so well despite their pessimism,” Norem writes in The Positive Power of Negative Thinking. “Before long, I began to realize that they were doing so well because of their pessimism… negative thinking transformed anxiety into action.” By imagining the worst-case scenario, defensive pessimists motivate themselves to prepare more and try harder.
Strategic optimists and defensive pessimists succeed under different circumstances. If you’re a defensive pessimist, or you’re attempting to motivate one, the strategies that prove effective are often the reverse of what you expect.
1. Don’t Whistle While You Work
Although evidence shows that happiness often makes us more successful by fostering energy and creativity, it can backfire for defensive pessimists. When strategic optimists and defensive pessimists threw darts, they did equally well overall, but were most effective under opposite conditions. Before throwing darts, some people listened to relaxing tapes (“hear the gentle rolling of waves on a sun-sparkled ocean”). Others imagined themselves throwing darts and missing their targets. When they actually threw their darts, the strategic optimists were about 30% more accurate when they relaxed rather than imagining negative outcomes. But the opposite was true for the defensive pessimists: they were about 30% more accurate when they thought about negative outcomes, instead of relaxing or picturing perfect performance. Norem’s research suggests that “positive mood impairs the performance of defensive pessimists.” When they’re in a good mood, they become complacent; they no longer have the anxiety that typically mobilizes their effort. If you want to sabotage defensive pessimists, just make them happy.
2. Encouragement Discourages
We think it’s a good idea to encourage people, but not so fast. In one experiment, people completed a drawing task requiring focus and accuracy. Right before the task, for half of the participants, the researcher looked at their grades in college and said, “Hmm, given how well you've done in the past, I would think that you'd be very confident about your performance. You will probably do very well on the upcoming tasks.” These words of encouragement slightly boosted the performance of strategic optimists, who did 14% better. In contrast, the defensive pessimists did significantly worse when they were encouraged, scoring 29% lower. The encouragement boosted their confidence, quelling their anxiety and interfering with their efforts to set low expectations. As Oliver Burkeman writes in The Antidote, “Reassurance is a double-edged sword.”
3. Don’t Worry, Be Hapless
When people are anxious, we sometimes tell them to distract themselves. Once again, this doesn’t pay off for defensive pessimists. In another experiment, people completed a questionnaire about their styles, and then took a mental math test that involved adding and subtracting numbers in their heads (like 15 + 47 – 73). The strategic optimists didn’t benefit from reflecting on possible outcomes, but the defensive pessimists did. When the defensive pessimists distracted themselves with another task right before the math test, their scores were about 25% lower than when they listed the most extreme outcomes that could happen in the test, and how they might feel. Taking time to worry helped them generate the anxiety necessary to motivate themselves.
4. Save Fantasies for the Silver Screen
Studies show that positive fantasies discourage achievement—when people imagine losing weight or pursing a relationship with a crush, they’re less likely to follow through. Also, people perform worse when they say “I will” than when they ask themselves, “Will I?”
“Affirmation feels good,” writes Dan Pink in To Sell Is Human. “But it doesn’t prompt you to summon the resources and strategies to actually accomplish the task.”
We Need the Glass to Be Half-Full and Half-Empty
Optimists tend to thrive in jobs that require resilience and perseverance. For example, in insurance sales jobs with high rejection rates, optimists sold 37% more than pessimists over a 2-year period and were half as likely to quit in their first year. In Learned Optimism, psychologist Martin Seligman reveals that when things go wrong, pessimists view negative events as personal (I’m a terrible public speaker), permanent (I’m never going to get better), and pervasive (I’m going to lose the respect of my colleagues and my spouse). Optimists, by contrast, recognize that when a presentation misses the mark, it’s possible that the audience wasn’t ready for their message, they can practice and improve, and they can still excel at other tasks and have an enjoyable evening at home.
At the same time, we need pessimists to anticipate the worst and prepare us all for it. On average, research indicates that people who never worry have lower job performance than those who worry from time to time. Studies also show that when entrepreneurs are highly optimistic, their new ventures bring in less revenue and grow more slowly, and when CEOs are highly optimistic, they take on more risky debt and swing for the fences more often, putting their companies in jeopardy. (This may be why there are fewer optimistic CFOs than CEOs.)
Ultimately, both styles are deadly at their extremes. Pessimism becomes fatalistic, and optimism becomes toxic. The key is to find the sweet spot, the more moderate ranges that combine the benefits of both approaches. In the words of Richard Pine, “The best chief executives—and that includes presidents—know that too much optimism is a dangerous thing, that wise and productive leadership means striking a balance between optimists’ blue sky view of the world and pessimists’ more clear-eyed assessment of any given situation. Take one part salesman, one part inventor, one part lawyer, one part safety engineer, stir gently and you’ve got a great chief executive.”
If you’re the kind of person who’s always telling other people to look on the bright side, you might want to reconsider. Whether people succeed is not a matter of thinking positively or negatively, but rather whether they choose the strategies that match their thinking styles. As psychologists Heidi Grant Halvorson and Tory Higgins write in Focus, “It’s the fit that counts.”
And if you’re a defensive pessimist, when preparing for a performance that really matters, you might want to list your weaknesses instead of your strengths, and drink a glass of anxiety rather than a shot of confidence.