7 Myths About Optimism and Pessimism

7 Myths About Optimism and Pessimism

via Psychology Today by Marianna Pogosyan


  • 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.

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 healthresiliencerelationshipscareerpain 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…

… keep reading the full & original article HERE