Can pessimism be beneficial?

Posted on Mar 14, 2018 in Uncategorized

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Our culture is saturated with upbeat messages, encouraging us to think positively. All the while, pessimism is typically regarded as a flaw or a hindrance — but could it actually bring its own benefits?

Pessimism is often defined as the expectation of negative outcomes, especially in the collective consciousness. People who tend to see the glass as half empty rather than half full are therefore perceived as messengers of doom and gloom.

More importantly, pessimism is sometimes tied to health risks. One study reported by Medical News Today last year, for example, concluded that pessimists were at a heightened risk of death from heart disease.

This might make sense to us given that pessimists are, by nature, worriers who expect the worst possible outcome in all uncertain situations. But could we be wrong in dismissing pessimism? Do we miss a trick when we insist on thinking positively?

Defensive pessimism

Julie Norem — a researcher in psychology at Wellesley College in Massachusetts — argues that a certain degree of pessimism has its benefits.

In a book called The Positive Power of Negative Thinking, which has gained considerable attention in the media, Norem draws on previous research to argue that in many cases, pessimism is a helpful coping and strategizing tool. She calls this “defensive pessimism.”

Coping mechanism and planning strategy

In an interview, Norem characterized “defensive pessimism” as an effective “strategy for dealing with anxiety and helping to manage anxiety so that it doesn’t negatively influence performance.”

“If you feel anxious,” she added, “you need to do something about it. Usually people try to run away from whatever situation makes you anxious. But there are other ways of dealing with it. Defensive pessimism is one way.”

The key aspect of defensive pessimism, according to Norem, is imagining possible negative outcomes to develop strategies for action, should they be needed.

“When people are being defensively pessimistic, they set low expectations,” she says, “but then they take the next step which is to think through in concrete and vivid ways what exactly might go wrong.”

This allows defensive pessimists to plan ahead and feel better prepared for whatever obstacles they may have to face in the future.

What we’ve seen in the research is if they do this [imagining negative scenarios] in a specific, vivid way, it helps them plan to avoid the disaster. They end up performing better than if they didn’t use the strategy. It helps them direct their anxiety toward productive activity.”

Julie Norem

Imagine the worst, but make it specific

That being said, she acknowledges that there are also some potential drawbacks to defensive pessimism. One downside, Norem says, may lie in how others perceive you — especially if you voice your negative scenarios out loud.

Other people may misunderstand this self-preparation tactic and take it as a sign that you’re not ready for the job ahead, for instance.

Another potential problem might arise from visualizing unspecific catastrophic scenarios. “The more internal drawbacks are if instead of thinking of negative possibilities in very specific terms, you start spiraling out of control,” as Norem puts it.

“That’s what clinicians consider catastrophizing to be,” she explains. “Instead of thinking of specific things that can go wrong that you can prevent, you say, ‘This talk is going to be a disaster. My whole life is a mess.'”

“The specificity is key to having positive effects as opposed to negative effects,” Norem adds.

You can take her online quiz to see whether or not you qualify as a defensive pessimist here.

Positive thinking’s side effects

Optimism may sometimes hold you back from achieving the best results, both in your personal life and at work. Having high hopes for the future could also lead to poor decision-making.

One study shows that tornado survivors tend to become unhealthily optimistic, thinking that when a tornado hits next, it’s unlikely that they’ll be affected.

This is because they believe that if bad luck misses you once, it’s unlikely to strike again in the future.

Yet this type of thinking ignores the fact that this is not necessarily a realistic outlook, and it keeps people from preparing for negative events.

Optimism affects performance and achievement

People who tend to imagine a bright future for themselves are less likely to actively pursue that scenario in real life, research suggests.

A series of studies conducted on young people in the United States found that, when the participants indulged in positive fantasies about the future, the act of imagining the successful achievement of their goals actually drained them of the energy they needed to pursue those aims for real.

“Although it is tempting to believe that simple positive visions can engender actual success, this belief is not always justified,” the study authors conclude, adding that:

Instead of promoting achievement, positive fantasies will sap job-seekers of the energy to pound the pavement, and drain the lovelorn of the energy to approach the one they like.”

Some types of optimism also seem to damage newlywed couples’ ability to solve any problems that they are faced with in their relationship, potentially leading to a deterioration of their bond.

One study found that, in early marriage, spouses who displayed dispositional optimism — or a habit of thinking that things would turn out all right, no matter what — correlated with better problem-solving within the relationship.

Spouses who displayed relationship-specific optimism, however — that is, those who were overly optimistic in their expectations about their partner — did not have a constructive problem-solving approach and were not as efficient in dealing with difficulties.