Dr. Jeffery Rossman states that there are two kinds of pessimism, dispositional and defensive (Rossman, 2010). Dispositional pessimism is the tendency to believe the worst on a consistent basis, whereas defensive pessimism is being prepared for bad things. Dr. Rossman says that by using defensive pessimism, people can protect themselves by taking constructive actions (Rossman, 2010). The difference between dispositional and defensive pessimism is that defensive pessimism involves empowering yourself by being ready for any situation, not just believing and accepting that everything will turn out badly.
Although being optimistic has many positive aspects, outcomes are not always positive. An optimist may believe they will quit smoking, but factors, such as being in a room full of smokers, might cause the individual to smoke. This is an example of how defensive pessimism has an advantage. Strategies designed to meet problems head-on are thought through and carried out when needed. Therefore, a defensive pessimist that is trying to quit smoking could feel anxious being in a room full of smokers, but they would have thought about how to handle that type of social situation. This helps the defensive pessimist succeed, as opposed to an optimist with a preconceived vision of success, which can sometimes end in failure and disappointment.
Julie Norem, author of the book “The Positive Power of Negative Thinking”, reports that using defensive pessimism is an effective strategy for anxiety (Norem, 2007). Norem defines defensive pessimism as, “…the strategy of setting low expectations and then thinking through, in concrete and vivid detail, all the things that might go wrong as one prepares for an upcoming situation or task” (Norem, 2007). Focus is then applied to ways to achieve success, even in the face of obstacles. There is a similar group of people called strategic optimists, with one of the main differences being the greater amount of pre-existing anxiety of defensive pessimists (Norem, 2007). Another difference is the expectation level of each group. Defensive pessimists set low expectations, whereas strategic optimists set high expectations (Spencer & Norem, 1996)
A downfall of defensive pessimism is that other people are annoyed by it, which can cause problems with relationships (Clarke & Edmond, Jr., 2002). Sometimes the more optimistic person will try to convince the more pessimistic person to try to be more positive, but this does not work. Studies have reported that defensive pessimists have poorer outcomes when interventions are used that are designed to improve moods (Norem, 2007). Defensive pessimists may also have problems with performance when there is not time to prepare for a situation (Spencer & Norem, 1996). However, when presented with sufficient time to prepare, defensive pessimists have advantages such as being more informed about diseases and other health related topics (Spencer & Norem, 1996).
G.B. Stern said, “Both optimists and pessimists contribute to our society. The optimist invents the airplane, and the pessimist the parachute.” I think individuals should do whatever works for them. I tend to be a worrier, and a defensive pessimist. I hope for the best, and prepare for anything and everything. I am happy and healthy and plan to stay that way, but just in case,…
Clarke, C., & Edmond, Jr., (2002). The power of negative thinking. Black Enterprise. Volume 32, Issue 11, p. 254.
Norem, J., (2007). Defensive pessimism, anxiety, and the complexity of evaluating self-regulation. Social and Personality Psychology Compass. Volume 2, Issue 1, pp. 121 – 134.
Rossman, J. (2010). The surprising power of optimistic pessimism. Rodale News. Retrieved from: http://www.rodalenews.com/optimism-and-pessimism.
Spencer, S., & Norem, J., (1996). Reflection and distraction defensive pessimism, strategic optimism, and performance. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Volume 22, Issue 4, pp. 354 – 365.