Pessimism and optimism describe two categories of explanatory styles which can affect psychological outcomes. People who are pessimistic tend to expect the worst and people who are optimistic tend to expect the best. Not too surprisingly, people who have a more pessimistic explanatory style have more negative physical and mental health outcomes than people who have a more optimistic explanatory style. There seems to be a psychological benefit to viewing the world in an optimistic or positive way. If optimism bestows so many benefits, why would pessimism still persist? Are there advantages to having a pessimistic worldview as well as disadvantages to having an optimistic one?
Neural basis of Optimism or Pessimism
To better understand optimism and pessimism, it’s helpful to know what happens in our brains when we engage in one mode of thinking versus another. There is evidence that the neural processes involved in optimism and pessimism are distinct from each other. Different parts of our brains are activated depending on how we are processing information. For instance, our left brain hemisphere is more active when we are focusing on positive emotional information while the right brain hemisphere is more active when we are more attune to negative emotional information. When we get use to utilizing some parts of our brain over others, it becomes our default mode and any new behavior or skill feels much more effortful. For this reason, people may have a hard time being less pessimistic or optimistic.
Excessive optimism isn’t always the best mindset to adopt. Many people can be biased toward positive information in the face of objective information. Unrealistic optimism, or the optimism bias, is the tendency for people to believe that that they are less likely to experience a negative event, despite statistical evidence to the contrary. For instance, someone who expects to get into an elite school that has a very low rate of acceptance or someone who chooses not to get vaccinated despite its well-established efficacy is displaying unrealistic optimism. People who are unrealistically optimistic may be less prepared for life’s disappointments. Unrealistically optimistic people may have trouble moving on from perceived failure or planning well for the future. In the short term being optimistic, even if it is illogical, can buffer us from negative emotional experiences. In the long term, however, it can make us more prone to negative outcomes.
Cultural Factors Underlying Optimism
Unrealistic optimism may be a cultural phenomenon, meaning it is not a biological imperative. In studies comparing cultural differences in mindset, researchers found people of European descent displayed higher levels of unrealistic optimism than people of Asian descent. Researchers believe the reason for this finding is due to the tendency for people in western cultures to engage in self-enhancement thinking. That is, westerners are more likely to want to view themselves in a positive light, which causes them to believe they won’t experience a negative outcome. Another reason may be that people from western cultures tend to value positive emotions more so than people from eastern cultures, increasing their likelihood of engaging in strategies to maintain current levels of positive emotions. Maintaining positive feelings in the short term, however, does not ensure better mental health outcomes, particularly if it affects one’s likelihood of applying precautionary behavior (e.g. getting vaccinated, or applying to “back-up” schools).
The converse of unrealistic optimism is defensive pessimism. Defensive pessimism is a coping strategy proposed by Nancy Cantor and Julie Norem at the University of Michigan in which individuals manage their anxiety by anticipating a negative outcome. For instance, someone may tell themselves that they won’t win an award or get into the college of their choice to protect against declines in their self-esteem. Cantor and Norem have found that a defensive pessimism strategy bestows more psychological benefits than an optimistic strategy in the face of failure. Studies have also found that being defensively pessimistic helps people manage their anxiety. Predicting a negative outcome can sometimes have the benefit of giving us a sense of control. When people accept that a negative outcome is possible, they can plan for a future that takes into consideration the negative outcome. They can also begin the process of adjusting which gives them a psychological head start compared to their optimistic counterparts. This strategy, however, is only useful in situations in which the possibility of disappointment is moderately high. Applying this strategy indiscriminately may keep someone in a permanent state of anxiety. Just as unrealistic optimism causes short term positive emotions while making one vulnerable to long term negative emotions, defensive pessimism causes short term negative emotions but mitigates the possibility of future negative emotions. When someone is in a constant state of expecting disappointment, negative emotions are maintained for a longer duration.
Finding Balance in Both
Because optimism and pessimism can be affected by social factors, it suggests that it is possible to change one’s tendency toward one or the other. Although people may have a natural tendency toward one mindset versus the other, it is still possible to train one’s brain to shift its focus of attention. Challenging ourselves to reappraise a situation after our initial appraisal will help us overcome our well-practiced cognitive habits. An optimistic and pessimistic thinking style both have its costs and benefits. If you have an overreliance on one strategy rather than applying a more flexible one, you are more likely to experience stress, anxiety, worry, and depression. Like most strategies, people likely adapted one strategy over another because of their experiences; however, just because something worked for us in the past doesn’t mean it will work for us in all situations.
Pessimism and optimism exist as separate continuums rather than as distinct categories. That is, people can certainly expect the worst but hope for the best. Most people are not entirely pessimistic or entirely optimistic. A balance of both mindsets is the most optimal approach to viewing life’s challenges.
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