You are here: Rediff Home » India » Business » Special » Features
Search: The Web
  Discuss this Article   |      Email this Article   |      Print this Article

How pessimism can add value to our work
Price Pritchett

 · My Portfolio  · Live market report  · MF Selector  · Broker tips
Get Business updates:What's this?
August 28, 2007

Studies show that, in some situations, pessimism helps us see things more accurately. It actually sharpens our sense of troubling realities. Pessimism increases our perception of danger, sensitizes us to potential problems, and causes us to weigh the downside more carefully.

This implies that pessimism can help protect us in high risk situations, like when there's a potential for catastrophic outcomes. So if the problem you're facing calls for a keen sense of reality or if it's critical to consider what might go wrong, the payoff from negative thinking may be worth the misery.

Research also shows that pessimists are generally better than optimists at remembering negative feedback, judging how much skill they have, and sizing up the extent to which they either succeeded or failed. But their more accurate view of reality is a hollow victory. It usually fails to produce benefits that would measure up to the advantages of optimism.

Day in, day out, we're better off to minimize negative thinking. Ordinarily pessimism weakens performance, while optimism enhances our ability to achieve.

The strategy of 'defensive pessimism'

Dr Julie Norem, a research psychologist at Wellesley College, states that some hard-core worriers can't make positive thinking strategies work for them. Instead, they cope with anxiety by suing an approach she calls 'defensive pessimism.'

People who rely on this strategy go through three steps to confront their anxiety about upcoming situations:

'Defensive pessimism' channels the anxiety into troubleshooting efforts. The negative thinking focuses on failure. What could cause it. How to defend against it. This process, though unpleasant, helps these people harness their anxiety and feel more in control. It also enables them to get some actual mileage out of their worry.

While this strategy might work if you're a rather anxious person, it has disadvantages. "Defensive pessimism" can get on other people's nerves. It also can give the impression that you lack confidence or ability.

Optimism versus pessimism versus realism

Some people argue against both optimism and pessimism in favour of so-called realistic thinking. They disturst optimism on the grounds that it causes us to sugarcoat problems, discount risks, and exaggerate the upside. Pessimism, on the other hand, is criticized as too downbeat, de-energizing, and generally damaging in its impact. This crowd prefers realism as the neutral and objective middle ground.

Frankly, these folks have surface logic on their side. Realistic thinking sounds so fare, so practical-minded and sensible. It implies accuracy. An appraising eye uncolored by emotion. A deep faith in factual data. Realistic thinking just comes across as the most scientific and, hey, isn't that hard to beat?

Well, it turns out that realistic thinking has its limits. In real life, it doesn't necessarily prove to be the most muscular mindset. Overall, optimism is a much more enabling attitude. Optimism inspires, energizes, and brings out our best. It points the mind toward possibilities and helps us think creatively past problems.

Let's also note that, like the realists, optimists, too, can exercise critical thought. They can be objective in analysis and deal straight-ahead with the unvarnished facts of the situation. Positive thinkers don't have to be Pollyannas. Sure, some people are blind optimists, naively positive to a hazardous degree. But we also have hardheaded realists, whose fanatic refusal to respect the potency of hope and positive thinking can cost them even more dearly.

'For everything, there is a season.'

It's true that pessimism, at times, can be turned to our advantage. But usually pessimism just carriers too big of a price tag.

Unflinching realism, with its bland and uninspired objectivity, will occasionally serve us best. But realism focuses too much on 'what is' at the expense of considering 'what could be.' It respects the head while ignoring the heart.

Let's be honest about this -- a fundamental but overlooked aspect of 'reality' is, in fact, what we think and feel and hope inside. That is a power born of ourselves, and it's very real in its influence on our lives.

Most of the time, and in most aspects of our being, optimism has by far the most to offer.

Play the odds -- think optimistically.

Excerpted from: Hard Optimism. By Price Pritchett. Publisher: Tata McGraw-Hill. Price: Rs 199

Price Pritchett is chairman and CEO of Pritchett, LP, a leading consulting firm with offices in seven countries.  For more than 30 years, Pritchett has researched, developed and implemented proven approaches that help individuals and organisations in every type of business address their biggest challenges. Copyright 2007 Price Pritchett. All rights reserved.

More Specials
 Email this Article      Print this Article

© 2007 India Limited. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer | Feedback