What is Defensive Pessimism In Psychology

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Joaquín Selva, Bc.S., Psychologist 01-09-2020

Defensive pessimism was first defined as when

“people set unrealistically low expectations prior to entering a situation in order to prepare themselves for potential failure and to motivate themselves to work hard in order to avoid that failure” (Norem & Cantor, 1986).

It has more recently been defined as

“a mechanism whereby the individual anticipates poor future performance despite evidence of a prior successful history. Such negative predictions help defensive pessimists in reducing anxiety and, therefore, in planning how to avoid poor performance” (Ferradas et al., 2017).

In other words, the idea of defensive pessimism is making oneself think that a future event will go poorly, so that one takes the necessary steps to make sure it does not go poorly.

For example, consider someone who has recently become unemployed preparing for a job interview. Imagine that in the past, they have always had great experiences interviewing for jobs, and have never had a job interview go poorly. Despite this, they convince themselves that their job interview is going to go terribly and they will never work again. The anxiety of this happening helps them prepare for the job interview so that it does not go poorly. Since they prepared so well because they were anxious about it, the interview goes extremely well and they get the job right away. This is defensive pessimism in action.

How is defensive pessimism related to self-handicapping? Self-handicapping is:

“the phenomenon in which individuals will create obstacles for themselves prior to an ability-evaluating event … in the event of a negative evaluation, obstacles became an excuse or explanation for failure. In the event of a (usually surprising) positive evaluation, obstacles instead become conquered hurdles” (Clarke & MacCann, 2016).

For example, someone who is coming up on a big job interview might not prepare for the interview at all. This way, if they do not get the job, they can tell themselves it is because they did not prepare, and if they do get the job, they can feel smart for having gotten the job without even preparing.

At first, self-handicapping and defensive pessimism might seem like similar reactions to future anxiety-causing events. Like defensive pessimism, self-handicapping involves expecting the worst from an event. Unlike defensive pessimism, though, self-handicapping involves a sort of self-sabotage. Furthermore, defensive pessimism involves overpreparation, if anything, as opposed to a lack of preparation. While defensive pessimism and self-handicapping might seem like similar processes, they are actually quite different.

What are the Benefits and Drawbacks of Defensive Pessimism?

Defensive pessimism is sometimes studied by categorizing people as either defensive pessimists or strategic optimists. Research like this has found that, on the same tasks, defensive pessimists will do best when they can think through possible negative outcomes, and strategic optimists will do best when they avoid thinking about possible negative outcomes (Norem & Chang, 2002). In other words, some people benefit from (defensive) pessimism, while others benefit from (strategic) optimism, with no single method being better for everybody.

Interestingly, though, when comparing anxious people who practice defensive pessimism to anxious people who do not practice defensive pessimism, a number of clear benefits arise. Specifically,

“defensive pessimists show significant increases in self-esteem and satisfaction over time, perform better academically, form more supportive friendship networks, and make more progress on their personal goals than equally anxious students who do not use defensive pessimism” (Norem & Chang, 2002).

This means that for people with high levels of anxiety, defensive pessimism can be a crucially helpful technique.

Before continuing to discuss the benefits and drawbacks of defensive pessimism, a clarification is needed. One thing that separates defensive pessimism from pessimism alone is that “defensive pessimists … unlike true pessimists … also report a propensity to reflect about, or plan for, their performance” (Gasper et al., 2009). In other words, defensive pessimism is made up of not just pessimism (expecting bad things to happen), but also a reflection (examining why you expect bad things to happen). These two tendencies are an important distinction in defensive pessimism.

The propensity for pessimism has been found to lead to increased anxiety and decreased perceived goal importance (Gasper et al., 2009). The propensity for reflection, however, has been found to lead to increased perceived goal importance, increased levels of effort, increased levels of hope, and increased personal goal initiative (which can roughly be described as the desire to change and develop as a person) (Gasper et al., 2009; Lei & Duan, 2016). This indicates that the tendency to reflect counteracts the tendency to be pessimistic, which can partially explain the fact that some studies have found defensive pessimism to be useful while others have found it to be harmful (Ntoumanis et al., 2010).

Benefits and Drawbacks of Defensive Pessimism

To briefly summarize the above findings, defensive pessimism and strategic optimism can be as helpful as each other, and whichever strategy is more effective depends on the person. Anxious people who use defensive pessimism, however, find more success than anxious people who do not use defensive pessimism. Finally, defensive pessimists who show the tendency to reflect more than the tendency to be pessimistic will succeed more than defensive pessimists who tend to be pessimistic more than they tend to reflect.

What Does Defensive Pessimism have to do with Positive Psychology?

The researcher who first articulated defensive pessimism considers it important because, based on a lot of psychology research (including some positive psychology research) into well-being, it is “extremely tempting to conclude that optimism is always to be desired over pessimism” (Norem & Chang, 2002). Research into defensive pessimism is meant to show that pessimism can also have positive effects on people. Combined with the fact that defensive pessimism is not only useful for people with a particular mental disorder, this indicates that defensive pessimism can be an important tool in positive psychology.

Positive psychology does not imply only focusing on positive thoughts, but as the above quote states, it can be misread to mean that. The inclusion of defensive pessimism and other negative thoughts in positive psychology research only serves to strengthen the field as a whole. Since some people benefit more from defensive pessimism than they do strategic optimism, it is necessary to continue researching negativity in the context of positive psychology, so the field can continue to expand its scope.

A Take Home Message

Defensive pessimism (not to be confused with self-handicapping) is a strategy that can be helpful for some people and harmful for others. If you find that defensive pessimism is a helpful strategy for your own issues, try to focus more on the tendency to reflect than the tendency to be pessimistic. Specifically, spend less time thinking something bad will happen, and spend more time understanding why you think something bad will happen, so you can figure out ways to prepare and avoid that negative outcome. If you find that defensive pessimism is actually a harmful strategy for your own issues, consider strategic optimism instead.

If you consider yourself to be an anxious person and you do not harness either defensive pessimism or strategic optimism, try both strategies and see what works best for you. As is often the case in life, there is no universal solution for everyone, so what is most important is how something affects you and your life. Educating people about ways they can increase their own levels of well-being is one of the wonderful aspects of positive psychology, whether or not every single strategy works for every single person.

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