Pessimism: Defensive and Strategic Types

Pessimism is bad, right? Well, what about defensive pessimism? Well, let’s start with defining regular old pessimism:

What is PESSIMISM? Per Psychology Today: “The glass is half-empty and storm-clouds loom overhead (never with a silver lining). Pessimists get a lot of flak for negativity, and their health may take a beating, too. But they make better leaders and are more resistant to false advertising. Having realistic expectations may actually be a recipe for happiness. Try a daily dose of cynicism, but don’t let excessive worry take over your life.”

So…we all know, of course, that pessimists die younger than optimists. 

Or not.

Clifford N. Lazarus has reported (Psychology Today) the following: “Believe it or not, having a negative outlook may be the secret to living a longer life. Indeed, while it may not make for a happier life, a recent German study found that the more pessimistic people were about their future life satisfaction, the less likely they were to die early or become disabled.”

Meanwhile, Jori Bolton, The Boston Globe, basically declared this old news, as Wellesley psychology researcher Julie Norem had asserted the benefits of pessimism in her The Positive Power of Negative Thinking way back in 2001.

Norem had found pessimists to number about 25-30 percent of us. According to a post on Oprah.com, “One of the most frequent comments Norem got after publishing The Positive Power of Negative Thinking in 2001 was ‘Thank you. I can finally tell my mother to shut up.'”

In the book Rorem explains a specific and helpful strategy known as defensive pessimism as well as its counterpart strategic optimism. Typically people aren’t either/or in their style and may in fact vary depending on circumstances. From her website:

Defensive pessimism is a strategy used by anxious people to help them manage their anxiety so they can work productively. Defensive pessimists lower their expectations to help prepare themselves for the worst. Then, they mentally play through all the bad things that might happen. Though it sounds as if it might be depressing, defensive pessimism actually helps anxious people focus away from their emotions so that they can plan and act effectively.

Strategic optimism is typically used by people who aren’t anxious. Individuals using this strategy set high expectations, and then actively avoid thinking much about what might happen.

Both strategic optimists and defensive pessimists typically do quite well, but both groups are also vulnerable to situations that don’t accommodate their strategies. My experimental research shows that if defensive pessimists try to raise their expectations, or avoid playing through a worst-case analysis, their anxiety increases and their performance suffers. If strategic optimists set lower expectations or play through possible outcomes, their anxiety increases and their performance decreases.

Author David Rakoff (1964-2012) also wrote about defensive pessimism. (See another facet of his writing at my post “Why Me?”: The Question So Often Asked When in Crisis.) His third and final collection of essays, Half Empty, was “essentially about pessimism and melancholy,” he’d stated.

Both dispositional and defensive pessimists face life with that same negative prediction: ‘This [insert impending experience, encounter, endeavor here] will be a disaster.’ But where the dispositional pessimist sees that gloomy picture as a verdict and pretext to return to or simply remain in bed, the defensive pessimist uses it as the first of a three-part process: 1) the a priori lowered expectations…are followed by 2) a detailed breakdown of the situation (the ‘this will suck because …’ stage), wherein one envisions the specific ways in which the calamity will take shape. A worst-case scenario painted in as much detail as possible. The process culminates in 3) coming up with the various responses and remedies to each possible misstep along the way (‘I will arrive early and make sure the microphone cord is taped down,’ ‘I’ll have my bear spray in my hand before I leave the cabin,’ ‘I’ll put the Xanax under my tongue forty minutes before the party and pretend not to remember his name when I see him,’ etc.).

Are you ever a defensive pessimist? Here’s Norem’s quiz.

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