Defensive Pessimism

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:

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.



  1. I would like to say that I think each of you bring up valid points regarding pessimism and optimism. But as Delma stated, for individuals who are riddled with anxiety, adopting and maintaining an optimistic outlook is not always feasible. Many of us have knowledge of the myriad of positive effects that result from having an optimistic outlook, but for those who are prone to anxiety, whether it’s situational anxiety or a full blown anxiety disorder, defensive pessimism can offer them the positive effects that come so easily to an optimist. Like Delma stated, quality of life is subjective, and what an optimist may view as an increase in quality of life – such as a large raise at work, a pessimist’s idea of an increased quality of life may be much different – being able to leave the house for a day of shopping without fearing that a dozen things may go wrong. In their article, appropriately titled: “Defensive pessimism: Harnessing anxiety as motivation,” Norem and Cantor explain that defensive pessimism, which is a strategy that the user enacts in an insecure situation in which they set very low expectations in an effort to control their anxiety level so that the anxiety does not infringe upon their performance in the situation (Norem & Cantor, 1986). Since high levels of anxiety can affect performance levels, and often individuals are unable to control their anxiety, this strategy of defensive pessimism helps them to reduce their anxiety before they begin their task. Without a strategy such as this at their disposal, anxious individuals run the risk of failing at the task at hand. In this article Norem and Cantor state that individuals with high levels of anxiety that do not employ the use of this strategy, have been known to use their anxiety as a self-handicapping strategy as an excuse for poor performance (Norem & Cantor). Utilizing this strategy when faced with situations that typically raise the anxiety level of already anxious person will enable the individual to use their anxiety as a form of motivation to succeed at the task at hand. And though these expectations are much lower than necessary, they enable the individual to succeed at the task, which helps to alleviate some of the anxiety. When they do not succeed at the task, they are better able to cope with the lowered amount of anxiety it has caused. And contrary to what has been stated in the blog, according to Norem and Cantor, these expectations do not become self-fulfilling prophecies (Norem & Cantor, 1986). As these individuals put together aspects of a situation and set low expectations around the situation, they are able to use their anxiety in constructive ways, rather than becoming weaken or hindered by it (Norem & Cantor, 1986).

    Norem, J. K., & Cantor, N. (1986). Defensive pessimism: Harnessing anxiety as motivation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 51, 1208-1217. doi:

  2. Delma Mae Wilt

    In response to Melody: Being able to think on the positive side is great but it is not possible for some people, especially those with anxiety. As previously mentioned, although defensive pessimism is not something that is right for everyone, it has proven to be an effective strategic tool used by people with anxiety (Norem, 2007). Trying to convince someone with anxiety to look at things in a better light, or not to worry, was shown to be ineffective (Norem, 2007). I think each individual has their own idea of what “quality of life” means, and if using defensive pessimism makes a person feel better, makes them feel more confident, and lessens their anxiety, then it is a strategy that can be and should be used effectively. Being able to use a strategy like defensive pessimism is being able to take control over a situation, instead of just assuming that it will turn out badly no matter what.

    Defensive pessimists can and do live their lives with good health and are also capable of having perfectly normal relationships and holding jobs in which they excel. As a defensive pessimist, I speak from experience. I have a good job, I am about to graduate with a psychology degree, I have three wonderful children that are intelligent and happy, I am in a happy relationship, and I have a wonderful relationship with my friends. However, there are times that I use defensive pessimism to make myself feel better, for instance during times that I have to do something that I have never done before, or travel somewhere that I have never been. I prepare for every scenario that I can think of, and I feel better. I do not have a negative outlook on life, but I know things can happen that are not expected, and I plan to be prepared as much as possible. This eases my anxiety and allows me to complete the task successfully, without experiencing the concept of a self-fulfilling prophecy. I am afraid of heights and would never think of getting on an airplane. However, if for some reason I ever did get on one, I would be thinking about the things that could go wrong because heights and flying are my phobias. Give me my parachute and I will at least feel a little better. That is the goal of defensive pessimism.


    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.

  3. Melody Renee Day

    Although there is a place in the world for both optimists and pessimists, per the amazing and inspiring G.B. Stern quote, a good question to consider is strength of quality of life. After all, it has been demonstrated that optimists live with better emotional well-being, health, academic performance, workplace achievement, social support, and romantic relationship contentment (Schneider, Gruman, & Coutts, 2005, p. 382). Therefore, although there is place and use for everyone, would it not behoove people to work towards a more optimistic outlook?

    For instance, it is also of some concern, especially with regards to pessimism, that an individual’s perception about their future tends to be a self-fulfilling prophecy (Schneider, Gruman, & Coutts, 2005, p. 204). Although the same is true for optimists, a self-fulfilling prophecy is when an individual’s belief in the ideas of what will happen to them, good or bad, causes those beliefs to become a reality (p. 382), such as when a person is so sure they’re going to get fired from their job that they start messing up work assignments in their state of unease, which then leads that person to being let go from their job. With self-fulfilling prophecies in mind, it paints a bleak picture for the futures of those individuals who tend more towards pessimism.

    As an example of the deleterious effects that pessimism can have on an individual’s future, via the self-fulfilling prophecy, consider the results of two observational and self-report studies by Downey, Freitas, Michaelis, & Khouri (1998, p. 545-560). The studies focused on the results of pessimism (specifically rejection expectancies) with regard to romantic relationships. Through the study, it was found that individuals with pessimistic views of rejection expectancies typically generated the rejection of their romantic partner themselves through actions related to their fear in the first place (such as acting more negatively during conflict than their non-pessimistic counterparts) (p. 555). With this, it was determined that greater rates of rejection expectancies led to increased rates of relationship loss (p. 556).

    Therefore, although the kinds of people who invent planes, as well as the kind of people who invent parachutes are both functional components of our society, given the evidence, it seems prudent that those who favor parachute invention should work towards more plane oriented perceptions in the interest of optimal life outcomes.


    Downey, G., Freitas, A. L., Michaelis, B., & Khouri, H. (1998). The self-fulfilling prophecy in close relationships: Rejection sensitivity and rejection by romantic partners. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75(2), 545-560. doi:10.1037//0022-3514.75.2.545

    Schneider, F. W., Gruman, J. A., & Coutts, L. M. (2005). Applied social psychology: Understanding and addressing social and practical problems. SAGE Publications. Kindle Edition.

  4. While negatives do exist in regards to using defensive pessimism as a defense mechanism, people with problems such as anxiety or self-doubt can greatly benefit from this strategy. Cramer (2010) reviewed the concept and consequences of self-doubt. Self-doubt is the constant concern that one is not worthy or competent and is often tied with low self-esteem (Cramer, 2010). Therefore, by adopting a strategy that would address the anxiety felt in self-doubt, anxiety itself can be reduced. Cramer (2010) suggests using defensive pessimism as a tactic to first lower one’s expectations and prepare for failure. This tactic would essentially provide protection of one’s self-esteem and reduce negative affect that may arise in the event in which feelings of worthlessness or lack of competency would occur (Oleson et al, 2000).

    Using this intervention in the real world, many individuals could greatly benefit by lowering expectations and preparing for failure. Perhaps this would force people to properly plan out how they will get from point A to B in any situation rather than allow spontaneity to lead to disaster. As you point out, this strategy allows individuals the ability to devise multiple ways in which to seek success and overcome obstacles. Stern’s quote is a great one and I thank you for sharing it. It is very true though, regardless of the strategy one adopts – both are necessary. What if defensive pessimists didn’t exist and society continued to come up with grand ideas, test these ideas out and result in a multitude of bad endings? A back up strategy can only be made by planning for failures and by planning for them, confidence increases, self- esteem increases and anxiety decreases (Cramer, 2010). This seems like a win for everyone!


    Cramer, P. (2010). Defense mechanisms and self-doubt. In R.M. Arkin, K.C. Olsen, & P.J. Carroll (Eds.) Handbook of the Uncertain Self (pp. 338-359). New York, NY: Psychology Press.

    Oleson, K., Poehlmann, K., Yost, J., Lynch, M. & Arkin, R. (2000). Subjective overachievement: Individual differences in self-doubt and concern with performance. Journal of Personality, 68, 491-524. doi:10.1111/1467-6484.00104.

Leave a Reply

Skip to toolbar