If you didn't know any better, you might say we're a country that preaches optimism. But some 30 to 35 percent of Americans employ a calculated form of negative thinking—called defensive pessimism—that can lead to very positive results, according to Julie K. Norem, PhD, a professor of psychology at Wellesley College.
We're not talking about a general disposition to see the glass half-empty: "Defensive pessimism is a strategy used in specific situations to manage anxiety, fear, and worry," says Norem, who has conducted seminal research on the subject. "Defensive pessimists," she says, "prepare for a situation by setting low expectations for themselves, then follow up with a very detailed assessment of everything that may go wrong." Once they've imagined the full range of bad outcomes, they start figuring out how they'll handle them, and that gives them a sense of control.
"What's intriguing about defensive pessimists," adds Lawrence Sanna, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who has also studied the phenomenon, "is that they tend to be very successful people, and so their low opinion of the outcome isn't realistic; they use it to motivate themselves to perform better." For example, an executive is getting ready to pitch a project, and she thinks beforehand, "The client is going to be really difficult; he's not going to like my proposal. I have to make sure I explain things very clearly." "She uses defensive pessimism as a tool to work through all the possibilities so she's prepared for everything, even failure," Sanna says. "And if she does fail, she's ready for it, so it's not so catastrophic."
If all this sounds familiar (take the quiz to see if you use defensive pessimism), a piece of advice from the experts may give you a lift: Don't listen to appeals from friends or family to look on the bright side. "Research shows that if you pressure defensive pessimists into being optimistic, or try to manipulate their mood, their performance deteriorates," says Andrew J. Elliot, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Rochester. One of the most frequent comments Norem got after publishing The Positive Power of Negative Thinking in 2001 was "Thank you. I can finally tell my mother to shut up."