We all know people — maybe we're even one of these people ourselves — who live by the mantra, “Hope for the best, but expect the worst.” And it turns out there's a psychological term for this type of thinking: Defensive pessimism. But what is defensive pessimism, exactly, and how do you know if you're one such pessimist? Let's take a closer look.
First coined by psychologists Nancy Cantor and Julie K. Norem in the 1980s, defensive pessimism is a cognitive strategy that works by setting the bar for any given problem or situation low, regardless as to the past experience of the individual setting the bar in the first place. By doing so, it enables the defensive pessimist to develop strategies for worst case scenarios before they happen. It's generally a strategy employed by anxious people; doing so helps them manage their anxiety, which in turn keeps their performance up. People who don't suffer from anxiety usually go with something called strategic optimism, which works by setting expectations high and avoiding thinking about what might happen.
Obviously each strategy has its pros and cons, depending on the situation at hand. According to Cantor and Norem's research, defensive pessimists who attempt to raise their expectations or avoid thinking about the worst case scenario end up with increased anxiety, which in turn makes their performance suffer. Likewise, when strategic optimists try to lower their expectations or imagine the worst case scenario, the same thing happens. It's worth noting that although defensive pessimists are harder on themselves in terms of how they rank their performance, they don't perform any worse than strategic optimists do.
So: How can you tell if you're a defensive pessimist? As you may have guessed, there's a quiz for that — and, of course, it's readily available. This is the Age of the Internet, after all.
Norem has a short quiz geared towards determining whether or not you're a defensive pessimist on her website at Wellesley College, where she currently teaches. Unlike some of the other quizzes I've volunteered myself as a guinea pig for in the past, it'll only take a couple of minutes to complete; it asks you to rank yourself from one to seven on 12 different statements, with a score of one meaning that the statement is “not at all true of me,” and a score of seven meaning that it's “very true of me.” Here's how I scored myself:
I totaled 62, which qualifies as a defensive pessimist according to Norem's research. This isn't at all surprising; in iffy situations, I usually imagine the worst so that in the event that it doesn't happen, I'll be pleasantly surprised. Sometimes this line of thinking causes me to spiral into a general freak out before anything bad actually happens, but at least I'm typically prepared when bad things do happen. It does, however, sometimes irritate my partner; in the same way I'm a textbook defensive pessimist, he's a textbook strategic optimist who doesn't worry about how to deal with bad things until they actually happen. To be fair, though, his refusal to think about the worst case scenario until it's already upon us bugs me, too, so we both just kind of deal with it. Different strokes for different folks, you know?
Want to give the quiz a shot yourself? Find it at Julie K. Norem's Wellesley site.