The Upside of Pessimism

The theory of defensive pessimism suggests that imagining—and planning for—worst-case scenarios can be more effective than trying to think positively.

Eric Gaillard / Reuters

I have pretty low expectations for this article. Oh sure, I spent a lot of time on it, and I personally think it’s a great read. But I’m kind of worried that you will hate it. Worse yet, I’m afraid you’ll hate me for writing it. You might take to Twitter and call me a featherbrained, elitist millennial. And then I’ll cry into my kombucha-flavored macaron. Or even worse, you might not read it at all. You might click away and go visit some lesser site, leaving me and my feathered brain to shout into the Internet abyss.

Or at least, that’s how I would start out thinking if I were prone to defensive pessimism, a phenomenon in which people imagine worst-case scenarios in order to manage their anxiety. But what defensive pessimists do next is key: They come up with strategies to avoid having all of those bad things happen, thus ending up better-prepared and less anxious in the long-run. In my case, that might mean topping this article with a clever title or even pre-writing some 140-character barbs to rout the haters.

This type of negativity might sound like apostasy by American standards. Norman Vincent Peale’s 1952 classic, The Power of Positive Thinking, sold 5 million copies and was a New York Times bestseller for 186 weeks. One of the most common things to say when someone expresses worry is, “Just think positive!” Optimism does have its health benefits, but according to Julie Norem, a psychology professor at Wellesley College, trying to force positivity is a bad strategy for the truly anxious.

I recently spoke with Norem, a pioneer of the defensive pessimism theory. Her 2002 book on the topic is maybe not quite as famous as Peale’s, but perhaps it will catch on if the Debbie Downers among us manage to outshine the shiny happy people.

A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows, and you can take a test to find out if you’re a defensive pessimist here.

Olga Khazan: What is defensive pessimism?

Julie Norem: It’s a strategy for dealing with anxiety and helping to manage anxiety so that it doesn’t negatively influence performance. If you feel anxious in a situation, it doesn’t really matter if it’s realistic or not, you feel how you feel. It’s hard not to feel that particular way. If you feel anxious, 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.

When people are being defensively pessimistic, they set low expectations, but then they take the next step which is to think through in concrete and vivid ways what exactly might go wrong. What we’ve seen in the research is if they do this 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.

Khazan: How would I apply this in real life?

Norem: Public speaking is my favorite example. If I’ve got a speech I’m going to give, and I’m anxious about it, I start thinking, this is going to be a disaster. I’m going to walk onto the stage and trip over the microphone cord. And I’m going to knock over the pitcher of water that’s by the podium. And the audio-visual stuff isn’t going to work. I’m going to get questions from the audience I’ve never thought of.

So I define some very clear steps I can take. I’m going to bring duct tape to tape down the microphone cord. I’m not going to wear high heels. I’m going to email my PowerPoint to the AV director and have it on a flash drive. Once I do all those things, I’ve built in a lot of safeguards and I’m very likely to have things go well.

Khazan: How does this benefit the person, exactly?

Norem: They tend to be better-prepared. They may not be un-anxious, but they feel more in control. In some sense, they’ve peaked in anxiety before their actual performance. By the time they get to the event itself they’ve taken care of almost everything.

It’s living the Boy Scout motto of “be prepared.” But people need motivation for that, and they need to get over the initial panic and anxiety.

Khazan: What are some of the drawbacks? Can it ever become demotivating or be a source of obsession?

Norem: The biggest negative impact potentially comes from other peoples’ reactions. If you’re doing it out loud, other people tend not to like it. They tend to have questions about your competence. “If she’s so worried about this, maybe she’s not up to this.” If it’s a first impression, that can be one of the drawbacks.

The more internal drawbacks are if instead of thinking of negative possibilities in very specific terms, you start spiraling out of control. That’s what clinicians consider catastrophizing to be. 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. I’m going to lose my job and my partner’s going to leave me.” The specificity is key to having positive effects as opposed to negative effects.

You are getting worked up in the process. It takes energy. If you’re doing it for everything, you’re more likely to wear yourself out. That said, anxiety is exhausting anyway. It’s still better than just saying, “Oh, I’m just not going to be anxious," because that just doesn’t work.  The demotivating part comes if you think of things that go wrong and there’s nothing you can do about it. But in those cases people tend to get more specific and identify a few things that they can do—even if they’re silly things. One person I knew in college would buy cases of breath mints so he would never run out. He was extremely socially anxious. It was something concrete that he could do about a specific worry he had. It was one concrete step that he could take even though he was socially anxious. And there’s a lot of research that shows that taking the one concrete step is extremely important, because it tends to lead to the next concrete step. You’re getting closer to your goal.

Khazan: Do these people tend to be just gloomy people to be around?

Norem: It is certainly possible for it to be mostly internal. There are lots of people who are doing this, but you can’t see it from the outside. But people using it tend to focus it in specific situations. They’re not walking around like a Gloomy Gus all the time. They may have more negative emotionality than people who don’t use it. But they don’t have an absence of positive emotions.

Khazan: If this is such a good strategy, why do other people try to get the person to just think positively? And what impact does it have on the pessimist?

Norem: Often our instinctive reaction is to think that we’ll help them by saying, “Calm down, don’t worry.” If you’re not experiencing anxiety yourself, it’s hard to have insight into how unhelpful that is. Our cultural context really emphasizes positivity. We think there’s something wrong if people aren’t projecting positivity all the time. You’re supposed to think about how to maximize positivity. There’s this idea that there’s something wrong with you personally if you see problems in the world.

It does sometimes make them feel like something must be wrong with them. They perceive that other people think they should be changing. When I talk about this, the most frequent comment is “I’m so glad to have a name for this so I can tell my mom or husband to get off my back.” It does make them feel like they need to be fixed, even though they’ve figured out a good way to deal with their anxiety.

Khazan: What’s wrong with being someone who’s just always trying to be happy?

Norem: I think it can be okay to be someone who’s like that. But it’s unrealistic to say that if you’re not (positive) to just pretend to be like that. If you feel anxiety, it feels real to you. If you ignore it, that doesn’t work out well.

Generally, the idea of trying to be happy is not a very useful focus. Happiness as an emotional state is going to be ephemeral. You’re going to be happy sometimes, and not happy sometimes. If your goal is to be happy, the next time you’re not happy, you’ll feel like you failed. Emotional life doesn’t work that way. There are inevitably things that are going to make us unhappy, and that’s not pathology or failure when you feel that way.

Khazan: What’s the opposite of a defensive pessimist? What are other strategies people use to help with their anxiety?

Norem: The biggest one is self-handicapping: People feel anxious, they’re worried about failure, and so they try to give themselves an excuse in case failure happens. You’re anxious about the party, so you get drunk, and if you make an idiot of yourself you can blame it on the booze. Or much more common is procrastinating. If things don’t go well, it’s because I put it off till the last minute.

Khazan: Is there a limit to this in a social setting? How can you really predict how people are going to react to you?

Norem: You can’t foresee the micro aspects of the social interaction. But you can break down this big amorphous party situation into the kinds of specific situations that happen at parties. You’re getting a drink at the drinks table, and someone comes up and says, “Hi, I’m so and so,” and where does the conversation go from there?

You could prepare for that by looking at the guest list so you have a sense of who’s going to be there. I know people who carry around note cards with lists of current events for small talk, so they don’t freeze in the moment. You can plan your outfit ahead of time. People feel better when they feel they’re dressed well. Those sorts of actions make you feel better prepared for an event, even if you can’t predict the specific person who’s going to talk to you first.

Khazan: Does all of this mean the power of positive thinking isn’t real?

Norem: There’s no right way to think about things that fits every situation and every person. You have to find ways of working in the world that fits for you. The reason thinking positively can work well is because it motivates people to go out and do things. If thinking positively leads you to productive action, that’s great. But it doesn’t for everyone. For people who use defensive pessimism, it’s hard for them to force themselves to think positively, and it doesn’t address the real issue of their anxiety.