A Case for Pessimism

Optimism can be healthy. But assuming the worst is over also means you won't be prepared.

Lori Mehmen/Associated Press

In 2006, a tornado struck the town of Iowa City, Iowa. The devastation wreaked by the category F2 twister was sizable: The 150 mph winds left a path of destruction four and a half miles long and a third of a mile across. Businesses in the small city suffered $10 million in damages; private residences and the state college, tens of millions. The residents of Iowa City were resilient: they rebuilt and moved on. In the process, however, they lost the ability to accurately assess their risk of experiencing another disaster. They were optimistic to a fault.

A few weeks back, Emily Esfahani Smith made a convincing case for the health benefits of optimism. More specifically, she reviewed recent research on resilience -- the ability to overcome trauma or tragedy. According to Smith, having a positive outlook is the most powerful predictor of resilience; optimism, thus, actively creates positive outcomes. She explains:

When your mind starts soaring, you notice more and more positive things. This unleashes an upward spiral of positive emotions that opens people up to new ways of thinking and seeing the world -- to new ways forward. This is yet another reason why positive people are resilient. They see opportunities that negative people don't. Negativity, for adaptive reasons, puts you in defense mode, narrows your field of vision, and shuts you off to new possibilities since they're seen as risks.

I'm an optimist and would never argue against the importance of being able to move on and thrive after negative life events. But for the sake of balance it's worth taking one thing into consideration: While these open-minded individuals are looking ever-forward toward the horizon, that might mean failing to see -- and thus failing to prepare for -- the possibility of stumbling blocks still to come.

The people who had been most directly affected by the tornado believed they had lower odds of being hit again.

A refusal to see the negative could end up putting you in harm's way, as was the case in Iowa City. The University of Iowa's Jerry Suls, who experienced the tornado's damage firsthand, was struck by a quote in the local paper from an older woman who had refused to take shelter in her basement as a different, 2008 storm approached, even though her neighbors, who lived just a few doors down, had both been killed the last time a tornado hit. Intrigued by the way she seemed not to have been affected by the near-miss, Sul designed a study to see if her way of thinking was representative of disaster victims. 

In the months following the storm, he found, most of the residents of Iowa City were not inclined take measures to protect themselves should another disaster occur. Since they'd already gotten through what felt like the worst of things, they didn't anticipate the same thing happening again. Both a month, six months, and a year after the disaster, college students and local residents affected by the tornado generally agreed they had a 1 percent risk of getting hit by another one. But they also believed they they were 10 to 12 percent less likely to get hit in the future than were people in surrounding towns. According to Suls, they seemed to be operating under the delusion that "lightning doesn't strike twice in the same place."

Call it optimism, but also call it statistically inaccurate. While in retrospect, the calculated odds of the same place getting hit twice might be large, experiencing one disaster in no way affects one's chances of experiencing another in the future.

Suls also identified a direct relationship between recovery time and optimism: For the first six months following the storm, the people who had been most directly affected believed they had lower odds of being hit again. During this time, much of the damage had yet to be cleaned up, a visible reminder that lightning -- or in this case, a tornado -- had already struck once. As the storm retreated from people's immediate awareness, their expectations for a future disaster became more realistic. 

Presented by

Lindsay Abrams is an assistant editor at Salon and a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Health Channel.

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