Even Optimists Tend to Expect the Worst
But there's an upside: It's a natural defense mechanism, say researchers.
Even if you consider yourself to be pretty upbeat, it’s easy to get caught up in feelings of dread as you wait to hear about uncertain news. As the moment of truth draws nearer, people often find themselves increasingly convinced that bad results are ahead.
These emotions may feel stressful and unhealthy, but a new study suggests they’re totally normal. In fact, this instinct to brace for the worst can actually be protective and serve as a buffer against potentially bad news, say researchers from the University of California Riverside.
In previous studies, it’s been recognized that, as individuals wait for their respective results, students become increasingly convinced they’ve failed an exam, patients become increasingly convinced they have a terrible disease, and voters become increasingly convinced that their candidate will lose an election.
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Kate Sweeny, Ph.D., a psychology professor at UC Riverside, wanted to see if this was true of optimists and pessimists alike. “Intuition might suggest that some people are more likely to brace than others,” Sweeny said in a press release. “In particular, happy-go-lucky optimists would seem immune to the anxiety and second-guessing that typically arise as the decisive moment draws near.”
So she and her co-author performed nine different experiments in their lab and in real-life settings. Some involved college students anticipating rankings of their attractiveness from peers, for example, while others involved law-school graduates awaiting the results of their bar exams. All participants answered questions beforehand to determine their natural disposition.
The researchers’ findings, published in the Journal of Personality, were “counter to intuition,” Sweeny said. “Optimists were not immune to feeling a rise in pessimism at the moment of truth. In fact, not a single study showed a difference between optimists and pessimists in their tendency to brace for the worst.”
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There was a difference, unsurprisingly, in overall predictions: Optimists started out with more positive expectations than pessimists. But everyone in the study tended to shift those expectations downward over time.
This may be because not getting one’s hopes up can be a natural defense. “If you expect the worst, you can lessen feelings of shock and disappointment if things don’t go as you hoped,” Sweeny told RealSimple.com, “and you’ll be pleasantly surprised if they do.”
So if you feel down right before a big announcement, Sweeny says you shouldn’t necessarily fight those feelings. Rather, she says, we should all try to be more like the optimists in this study, and save our pessimism for these strategic moments.
“It’s generally good to be optimistic about the future,” she says. “Optimists are happier and healthier in lots of different ways, and it’s true that worrying too much or for too long can lead to anxiety and rumination. But in these final moments before you get big news, optimism can be really treacherous.”
In other words, she says, making sure you've done everything you can to ensure your chances of success—and then putting off your worries until those final moments—may be the best balance you can strike. And if you do feel like the world’s about to end while you wait, take heart in knowing that that’s normal, too.