Anxiety Can be Helpful

Throughout my years of schooling, I have witnessed a wide variety of approaches when it comes to studying and receiving grades.  I’m not referring to the actual act of studying, however.  Rather, I’m referring to the mindset and attitude that different students have held toward studying and receiving grades.  These attitudes included optimism, whether justified or not, and pessimism, whether justified or not.  They also included people who experienced the overjustification effect, when they don’t enjoy learning because they feel forced to do so, self-handicapping, those who study less as an excuse for if they don’t do well, and, one of the most dangerous attitudes, the self-serving bias (Gruman et al., 2017).


Self-serving bias is when people take personal credit for their successes but tend to blame their failures on outside sources (Gruman et al., 2017).  This can often times be witnessed in sporting events when the loser attributes the outcome to something like the weather or illness rather than the winner being better than them.  In terms of academics, students may blame the teacher for not fully preparing them or their roommates for distracting them when they were trying to study.  This phenomenon is likely in place to protect our self-esteem and help keep the positive image of ourselves intact.  Unfortunately, this often-unjustified optimism can lead to very harmful long-term outcomes for those who let it set in.  When people always attribute their negative outcomes to outside sources then they will never feel the need to change their behavior or mindset.


The good news is that there are ways to diminish the hold that self-serving bias can have.  The main way to do so is to temper expectations for the results of exams in the case of academics.  A study conducted by Eronen, Nurmi, and Salmels-Aro (1998) showed that people who were considered defensive pessimists were more successful in academic performance than were other categories of students.  The reasoning for this is that defensive pessimists tend to set low expectations for themselves and then worry about what the result will be.  They don’t just stop there though.  They channel that anxiety and use it to prepare even more than may be necessary.  So if you find yourself performing poorly in your academic ventures and blaming anything but yourself, you may find it beneficial to look inward and alter your expectations while keeping in mind that a healthy dose of anxiety can be helpful in avoiding the self-serving bias.



Eronen, S., Nurmi, J.-E., & Salmela-Aro, K., (1998). Optimistic, defensive-pessimistic, impulsive and self-handicapping strategies in university environments.  Learning and Instruction, 8, 159-177.

Gruman, J. A., Schneider, F. W., & Coutts, L. M. (2017). Applied social psychology: Understanding and addressing social and practical problems (3rd ed.). Los Angeles, CA: SAGE.


  1. I have truthfully never considered that the attitudes we take towards homework and schoolwork are the biproduct of emotional approaches we are taught to have in regards to our work. Relating the way we view our work to optimism and pessimism provides a different point of view to academics. However, as someone who suffers from chronic anxiety, I have never fully comprehended how anxiety can fuel productivity or success. Ultimately, the goal is to eliminate various biases that the student may attribute to their own failure and facilitate a positive attitude towards homework and preparation. While we use the term anxiety as a synonym for apprehension or nervous energy when someone is healthy, anxiety for those of us who feel its unwelcome presence at all points during our day is not a useful tool. While living in Asia, I never once heard a parent tell their child to use their anxiety. Instead, they focused on reducing anxiety as much as possible through hard work and preparation for the sake of better grades and a healthier lifestyle.

  2. Ah, the blame game. I believe most have blamed someone or something else for their failures. I like how you applied optimism and pessimism when reflecting on the student’s outlook. Interesting, to mention that a reason for a pessimist outlook towards failure may actually be a defense mechanism to protect our own self-esteem. This leaves me to wonder what an individual’s mindset may be when they are procrastinating the completion of an assignment. Are they optimists and are confident that they will complete the assignment on time? Or, are they blaming outside factors for consuming their time, thus preventing them from studying. The defensive pessimist that you mentioned is an interesting approach. Rather than just setting the bar low and accepting their fate, they instead are concerned with the poor performance and utilize it as motivation. Sounds like a very difficult way to approach any situation, especially school… Great post.

  3. It is interesting that you wrote about this article because I have also seen this article pop up on my social media feed. I also was curious how they operationally defined “healthier” because there are many ways to describe healthy whether it is emotional, physical, or mental. The problem I see with this study is that it gives a suggestion of drinking alcohol with friends to be healthier, but that can be problematic for those with alcohol dependency issues or with a compromised liver or kidneys. For those groups of people, alcohol can have opposite effect on their health no matter how much is consumed or who they are with. I am glad you to touched on the source of the research because too often we see research results as unbiased or complete when they can used to sway public opinion towards an action (much like activist research). One study I found from the Washington Post (2016) found that alcohol consumption only improves happiness marginally if done during a fun activity like hanging out with friends, but does nothing for long term happiness. In my personal opinion, alcohol consumption should not be the basis for happiness and social support is what makes the biggest impact on overall mental health and wellbeing.

    Ingraham, C. (2016, May 24). Scientists have figured out exactly how much fun it is to get drunk. Retrieved from

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