Pessimism: The Bad, and the Not So Bad

When you see a glass with water in it, do you think it is half full, or do you say it is half empty? If you thought about the latter, you’re probably a pessimist. Literally derived from the Latin word meaning “the worst”, pessimism is a way of thinking that can be described as a tendency to see the worst aspects of things. It can also refer to a fixation on the darker aspects of any situation or harbouring expectations of a negative outcome. People who tend towards pessimism also generally feel more helpless and may believe that a negative outcome is unavoidable.

Historically, pessimism has been the subject of many philosophical ramblings. Philosophical pessimism stops being a state of mind, or a general disposition, and turns into an irrationally negative worldview. German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche believes that the human brain’s ability to think about the future is what is mainly responsible for the pessimistic thought- the fact that we can even think about consequences to our actions, fuels the negative thoughts.

Robert L Leahy, a psychiatrist from Cornell University, writes about how the primitive man had to think about the adverse effect of almost every action he made. He suggests that the survival of the primitive man and his genes were completely based on knowing the negative outcomes and weighing the pros and cons before doing menial tasks such as going out of the cave. In such situations, it would serve the man better if he did not do a task because he chose to concentrate on the negatives rather than the positives.

Pessimism could largely also be because of an individual’s brain physiology. Neuroscience researchers at MIT have found that stimulation of a brain region called caudate nucleus could be responsible to the invoking of increased negative thoughts and higher weightage to the anticipated drawbacks of situations. It was also found that the effects of stimulation could last as long as a whole day! And of course, if the primitive man who had the foresight and could evaluate consequences, their chances of survival and genes being passed on are much higher than individuals who were brave but lacked planning.

Humans show the “negativity bias”- the tendency to provide more attention and assign a higher value to a negative factor like a comment or an experience, especially if it surrounded by other positives. For example, we are more likely to focus on one bad grade than the other perfectly acceptable grades. Psychologists like Steven Pinker seem to think that negativity bias could be used to explain the psychology of pessimism.  He suggests that the negativity bias and pessimistic thought comes not only from the evolutionary experiences, but also because pessimism is a function of nostalgia (we always look back on how easy life was, implying that life isn’t easy now), and how the media only portrays negative events as “news” (ordinary days rarely count as news, but if something horrific happens, it will be all over the media)

Now that we know why we think pessimistic thoughts, it is important to see how they affect our thinking. Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania studied how prospection (which is the mental representation of possible futures) is affected by pessimism. Their findings suggest that negative prospection is a core causal element in depression.

Pessimist people are also likely to be more stressed out, less risk-taking, less creative and their thought process can also have a negative effect on their relationships. Many other studies seem to show that pessimism not only affects a person’s emotional well being but also affects their physical health. A study from Finland focused on the effects of optimism, pessimism and the risk of coronary heart diseases and the mortality due to it. Their results showed that those who died because of coronary heart disease were significantly more pessimistic. However, it did not show any link between optimism and CHD induced mortality.

Apart from the scientifically researched studies, popular self-help books such as The Secret by Rhonda Byrne talks excessively about the power of positive thinking and the “law of attraction” The law of attraction, based on New Thought Philosophy, talks about how individual’s thoughts have the power to change the world. Though claimed to be a pseudoscience, the law of attraction has racked a lot of profits in book sales and continues to be one of the most preached lifestyles, and since it has captured the popular imagination, is noteworthy in its preaching of overly optimistic thinking.

But is pessimism really all that bad? Evolutionarily, it has its advantages- like helping our ancestors in survival, as explained. However, if it isn’t a desirable trait anymore, why hasn’t it gone away yet?

Psychologists suggest that it is sometimes way more effective to rationally think about all the things that could go wrong rather than being extremely positive at all times. Psychologist Julie Norem suggests that a defensive pessimist will set low expectations, think vividly about what can go wrong, and then plan to avoid the disaster. She suggests that the defensive pessimists direct their anxiety toward productive activity. This means that they are more prepared for any event and feel a sense of control. Pre-planning in such a way doesn’t mean that there is no anxiety- however, the anxiety comes way before the actual event or consequence. As a result, in situations where the consequences cannot be influenced, defensive pessimists have an upper hand over optimists, who tend to feel a bigger hit when things don’t go the way they plan.

Defensive pessimism hence has a better reward than optimism.

A study by about the costs of optimism and benefits of pessimism suggested that timing played a major role in the costs and benefits. Their findings suggest that people may proactively manage their expectations to avoid the costs of optimism. The results showed that effective costs of positive expectations outweigh the benefits. It also showed that people with negative expectations were less disappointed and reported lesser negative effects than their counterparts.

While pessimism may have its benefits, psychologist Martin Seligman seems to think that most pessimists take failures as more personal, permanent and persuasive. By contrast, optimists recognize what the drawbacks were, can practice and improve and don’t let their negative feelings hinder them from trying again. This goes to prove that optimism and pessimism aren’t “one size fits all” ways of thinking- while low expectations and plannings work for some, it probably would be a better idea for someone else to think positively and motivate themselves.

Harshi Shetty