The mind seems to be wired for negative thoughts. Common wisdom says that pessimism is a problem. The anti-pessimists warn us: “don’t think like that or you’ll doom yourself to failure!” But common wisdom can be wrong, and pessimism can be helpful – if it is done correctly. So cinch up your belt and suspenders, and let’s find the positive side of negative thinking!
IronWife and I are buying a new house. A bigger house, with room for Dog and Child. I hope it has room for my mind, as well. It seems to take up a lot of space these days with its pessimism. Here’s one example of my mind working overtime without my consent:
Wife: What’s wrong?
Me: Just worried about the new mortgage.
Wife: It’s not that much more.
Me: It’s not much until you don’t have it. I’m not looking forward to the extra driving, either.
Wife: I don’t think it will make much difference.
Me: It’s an extra hour out of each day.
Wife: I’ll leave you to your thoughts. You’re bringing me down.
IronWife had had enough of my pessimistic mind. If only I could walk away so easily when it’s getting the better of me. What to do with all those negative thoughts? There is an answer. Let’s come back to that question.
Pessimism seems to be hardwired into us. We are masters at spotting flaws, dark clouds, and dangers. Imagine standing in front of a beautiful stained glass window. It is a wonderful creation of color and form… and in the corner of this beautiful window is a broken piece of glass. Most likely, your eye will immediately gravitate toward the flaw. With effort, you might ignore the missing piece and enjoy the artwork, but there is little chance you will miss the imperfection. Most minds will want to focus on it. 
Why does pessimism come so easily? Why, when faced with something as lovely as stained glass or a new home, must the mind inventory every blemish? The answer might lie in the adaptive, positive effects of negative thinking.
Evolutionary psychology teaches that widespread psychological traits are adaptations that help us cope with the environment. For example, humans have developed an instinctive fear of snakes and spiders because any of our ancestors who avoided them earned the opportunity to pass on their “be afraid of snakes and spiders” genes.
Pessimism, like snake and spider phobias, may be an adaptation that promotes survival. Our ancestors would have been poorly served by joyfully sniffing every flower while they were hunting for lunch. Better they should have assumed that the world is a dangerous place. A bit of well-placed pessimism would lead them to watch for predators, pitfalls, and creepy-crawlies.
But more than sensitizing our ancestors to dangers, pessimism helped to solve problems. According to psychologist Robert Leahy (2002), “pessimism, avoidance, and retreat” were frequently the best strategies for survival in the primitive environment. “Given that much of evolutionary history was lived close to the edge of survival, miscalculations could prove fatal.”
For our ancestors, there was at least one major advantage to pessimism: there is little cost to being wrong. If you choose to hide because you think a bear is lurking about and it turns out that you were wrong, then you’ve only wasted a bit of time. But if you erroneously choose to reveal yourself… Well, you might be the guest of honor at a pic-a-nic. For early humans, it paid to be paranoid.
The Ancient Cure for Modern Times!
Things have improved dramatically since our forefathers were hunting with spears. We no longer need to compete with the local pride of lions for our dinner. In spite of that, we tend to be a pessimistic lot. What gives?
Pessimism remains a wonderful problem-solving strategy if it is used correctly. A specific type – defensive pessimism – has been shown to reduce anxiety before a task and improve performance. In fact, defensive pessimism is a favorite strategy of many high achievers (Lim, 2009).
It works like this: when faced with a difficult task and uncontrolled circumstances, the defensive pessimist will set low expectations. Then, they think through the possible outcomes. This improves performance by lowering anxiety: the defensive pessimist learns to tolerate the idea of failure which, ironically, is relaxing. It also arms the defensive pessimist with contingency plans, should things go awry. Lim’s research suggest that this type of pessimism is far from self-fulfilling. It can actually improve performance.
Obviously, there are times when pessimism is detrimental, especially when a person becomes immobilized by depressing or fearful thoughts. The magical ingredient in pessimism is “reflectivity,” which refers to the planning and strategizing that follows a pessimistic forecast. Reflectivity counteracts the immobilizing effects of pessimism by strengthening four factors related to performance:
- Goal importance: Defensive pessimism places importance on avoiding failure, and therefore on creating goals. And those who set goals tend to pursue them.
- Effort: Research on this topic shows a link between planning and effort. Lingering merely on negative outcomes is linked with decreased effort. But reflection on what to do to avoid negative outcomes corresponds with increased effort. Increased effort creates higher chances of success.
- Expectations: As reflective pessimists develop plans, their performance expectations tend to rise. Oddly enough, the fear of poor performance, if accompanied by planning, can actually increase confidence.
- Anticipated emotional recovery: Because they anticipate the possibility of poor performance, defensive pessimists also anticipate that they will recover quickly from failure. (Gaspar et al, 2009).
Such unfair press for a such a useful trait! Our primal minds – who are only trying to help us get by – must suffer the slings and arrows of those who pass judgment on negativity, insisting that we must control the uncontrollable. Quite simply, there are times when the mind, without our consent, will see the dark cloud behind the silver lining.
Whether or not we experience negative thoughts is unimportant, it seems to me. For most of us, the thoughts will appear whether we like it or not. It is what we do with those thoughts that matters.
One option is to fight the thoughts and push them away. That works for some. For others, it is a costly, untenable battle.
Another option is to cultivate positive thoughts to counteract the negative. No harm in that. In fact, I recommend it.
A third option is to accept and respond thoughtfully to whatever the mind provides. A recent Japanese study (Hosogoshi, 2009) reported that those with a tendency toward pessimism experience better health when they learn how to accept their negative thoughts.
The study compared defensive pessimists with people who become mired in fearful, depressive thoughts. These so-called “dispositional pessimists” perceive little control over a situation. That prevents planning and saps motivation.
Defensive pessimists, on the other hand, use their pessimism to its best advantage. In addition to enjoying better health, those who accepted their negative thoughts possessed self-esteem equal to strategic optimists. 
So let’s have a cheer for life-saving, problem-solving pessimism! Whoever said “think positive” was overlooking the bright side of negative.
1. Thank you to Ragnar Storaasli for the stained glass metaphor. Dr. Storaasli instructs doctoral students (including yours truly) at the University of Denver’s Graduate School of Professional Psychology, where he specializes in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, applied behavior analysis, behavior therapy, philosophy of science, and the “cultivation of compassion and critical thinking.” You can see why I like him so much.
2. See, for example, Seligman (2006, p. 113). Despite his somewhat pessimistic view of pessimism, his book is a nice guide to cultivating an optimistic outlook. The research I’ve reviewed suggests that reflective pessimism works well for some folks, but not for others. Context matters, also. As Seligman himself points out, the cockpit of an airliner is better suited to stark realism than naïve optimism.
3. Strategic optimists tend to imagine the best outcome, then avoid thoughts of failure. As you might imagine, strategic optimists sometimes get caught with their pants down because, unlike defensive pessimists, they do not plan for worst-case scenarios.
Defensive pessimism is a coping style of choice for people who are anxious by nature because of its calming effects. Neither approach is better than the other, nor are they the only options. The best problem-solving approach is the one that fits your personality style.
del Valle, C.H.C. & Mateos, P.M. (2008). Dispositional pessimism, defensive pessimism and optimism: The effect of induced mood on prefactual and counterfactual thinking and performance; Cognition & Emotion, 22(8), 1600-1612.
Hosogoshi, H. (2009). Accepting pessimistic thinking is associated with better mental and physical health in defensive pessimists. Japanese Journal of Psychology, 79, 542-548.
Leahy, R.L. (2002). Pessimism and the evolution of negativity. Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy: An International Quarterly, 16(3), 295-316.
Lim, L. (2009). A two-factor model of defensive pessimism and its relations with achievement motives. The Journal of Psychology, 143, 318-336.
Gasper, K., Lozinski, R.H., & LeBeau, L.S. (2009). If you plan, then you can: How reflection helps defensive
pessimists pursue their goals. Motiv Emot, 33, 203-216.
Seligman, M.E.P. (2006). Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. New York: Vintage Books.