Defensive Pessimism

Tali Sharot wrote The Optimism Bias, a book on why humans almost always view the future as hopeful and sunny.  She has studied hundreds of subjects, young and old, and found that no matter the odds, we always believe that tomorrow will be better. We’re apparently hard wired that way.  Some of us, however, fight that innate instinct. 

According to Julie K. Norem, Ph.D., a professor at Wellesley College Department of Psychology, 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. “Though it sounds as if it might be depressing,” reads the site, “defensive pessimism actually helps anxious people focus away from their emotions so that they can plan and act effectively.”

Dr. Norem is the author of a book called The Positive Power of Negative Thinking. Her theory is that by preparing for the worst, you not only manage your own anxiety, but may also improve your performance by mentally rehearsing disasters and worst-case scenarios. Norem estimates that 30 to 35 percent of the U.S. population thinks this way. She also spends time in the book on how people with different processing styles can learn to appreciate each other and work or live together more easily.

This is a big problem in business; optimists and pessimists do have a hard time working together.  Each group thinks that the other is a little crazy.  Pessimists see optimists as Pollyannas who can’t possibly understand the situation; they’re bound to be disappointed when things go wrong – as they inevitably will.  The optimists see the pessimists as wet blankets who prefer to prepare for failure than for victory. 

The key to success is getting the right mix of pessimists and optimist on a team, and then teaching them how to appreciate each other’s strengths.  Optimists are great big picture planners; their favorite questions begin with “what if?”  What if this idea really takes off?  What if we added three more features to generate revenue?  They are good at planning for success and creating shared a vision for the team.

The pessimists will spend their brainpower imagining what could go wrong. This also serves an important purpose: to help prepare for worst case scenarios that may come up (what if our presentation materials get lost in shipping?) In addition to planning for imagined disasters, pessimists excel at pointing out flaws in the plan and realistic pitfalls.  If they feel valued, they can be tremendous assets for planning. 

The problem comes in when the optimists and pessimists stop listening to each other.  Optimists do tend to get worn down over time when being barraged by negative what ifs; it’s easy for them to view a pessimist’s input as simply the same old doom and gloom.

When a pessimist feels that her early input is being ignored, she can resort to her most dangerous mode: sitting back and waiting for disaster to happen. “I could have told you that was going to happen, but no one ever listens to me.” Pessimists may always believe that the worst might happen, but you don’t want them to be hoping for it. They see themselves as realists; they want to help you by providing insight that you may have overlooked. You want them on your side.

If you live or work with a pessimist, one thing experts agree on is that you won’t be able to change their instincts.  It doesn’t do any good to tell a pessimist to look on the bright side; they’re just not wired that way. And you might not want to change them after all; there is a place for both types in business.  The optimist invented the airplane, and the pessimist invented the parachute.

Find out if you’re a defensive pessimist – take the quiz designed by Dr. Norem here:

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