Being Optimistic about Pessimism ( )

Being Optimistic about Pessimism
May 14th, 2008 by Jane

When was the last time someone told you to cheer up or look on the bright side? Did these words irritate you? Being told to cheer up is probably the last things you want to hear when you are feeling down. It may even make you feel worse according to some psychologists. First you feel bad about the thing that is getting you down (e.g. lost your job, pet died) and then you may feel bad because you can’t seem to cheer yourself up.

Clinical Psychologist Barbara Held argues that American culture has become obsessed with being positive and optimistic, so obsessed that some individuals now have difficulty being in the company of someone who is in a negative mood.

I would argue it’s not just America that has gone slightly extreme and obsessed with positivity. Western culture in general has gone crazy about positivity. Being positive and upbeat is what seems to be expected, and if you’re not that, then there may be something wrong with you. You may be “defective”.

Norem and her research team performed several experiments where they made defensive pessimists think like strategic optimists by raising their expectations, stopping them from mentally rehearsing possible outcomes, making them relax and cheer up (Norem & Illingworth, 2004, Norem & Illingworth, 1993, Spencer & Norem, 1996). The purpose of these experiments was to see if positive thinking and relaxation would lead to an improvement in defensive pessimists ability to function.

Interestingly, it was found that forcing defensive pessimists to think more like strategic optimists caused their performance to suffer. Norem (2001) concluded that defensive pessimism is a strategy that helps anxious individuals to confront and work through their anxious thoughts rather than deny them. Ultimately, this research on defensive pessimists illustrates that the positive thinking may do some individuals a disservice by causing their performance to suffer. Subsequently, these individuals may end up feeling worse about themselves.

So how can you tell if positive thinking may not be for you when performing difficulty tasks (e.g. preparing for a talk or a big project)? First of all, you could take Julie Norem’s simple questionnaire to workout if you are a defensive pessimist. It will take you less than a minute to do.

Ultimately, I believe both positive and negative thinking and experiences have their place and a balance of the two is needed in order to live a healthy, fulfilling life. After all, if you never confront stressful situations, how can you ever expect to grow and develop? How can you fully appreciate the wonderful experiences you have? As the famous saying goes ‘Without the bitter baby, the sweet ain’t as sweet’.


Held, B.S. (2002). The tyranny of the positive attitude in America: observation and speculation. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 58(9), 965-992

Norem, J.K. (2001). The positive power of negative thinking. Cambridge: Basic Books

Norem, J.K. & Illingworth, K.S.S. (2004). Mood and performance among defensive pessimists and strategic optimists. Journal of Research in Personality, 38, 351-366

Norem, J.K. & Illingworth, K.S.S. (1993). Strategy-dependant effects of reflecting on self and tasks: Some implications of optimism and defensive pessimism. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 65(4), 822-835

Spencer, S.M., & Norem, J.K. (1996). Reflection and distraction: Defensive pessimism, strategic optimism, and performance. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 22(4), 354-365

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