Researchers are now looking at the values of pessimism as well as optimism, and the uses of “strategic optimism and pessimism.” Even naturally sunny personalities can take advantage of dark moods and instincts to plan for the worst.
“It’s gotten to the point where people really feel pressure to think and talk in an optimistic way,” said B. Cade Massey, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at the Yale School of Management in a article last fall in Psychology Today.
“Massey’s research shows that, when asked to forecast the outcomes of events like a financial investment or a surgical procedure, study subjects make predictions that they know are overly optimistic,” says the article. “Yet they also say they wish to be even more optimistic than they already are.”
Notes Aaron Sackett, a psychologist at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis: “In America, optimism has become almost like a cult.”
Many people put themselves into one of two camps: optimists or pessimists, people who tend to approach the world in either a consistently upbeat or a mostly skeptical manner. But researchers are now looking at the ways people mix and match their approaches, calling this “strategic optimism and pessimism.”
Edward Chang, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, told Psychology Today that “the field is starting to recognize that many of us use these mind-sets in a flexible way and that this flexibility has a lot of advantages.” Chang helps direct an “Optimism-Pessimism Lab” at the University of Michigan which is studying the conditions and contexts in which pessimism is “good” and optimism is “bad” and the value in identifying more specific dimensions of general optimism and pessimism.
Pessimism is useful on several fronts. For one thing, it’s a good defensive tactic. “Surprisingly, it can be most helpful at the moments when we might seem to have the least to feel pessimistic about,” says Psychology Today. “When we’ve been successful before and have a realistic expectation of being successful again, we may be lulled into laziness and overconfidence. Pessimism can give us the push that we need to try our best.” For instance:
“An executive organizing a conference, for example, might anticipate a disagreement between two participants and arrange to seat them at opposite ends of the table. She might predict that attendees will get tired and hungry after several hours of discussion and plan for breaks and meals. And she might foresee that the meeting will end without any firm conclusions and therefore build a ‘Where do we go now?’ final session into the schedule. If she’d adopted a breezy optimism (‘Everything will go fine!’), the conference likely would not be as successful.”
Still, as MIT SMR wrote in 2010, optimists get jobs more easily, and get promoted more, too. Researchers Massey, Ron Kaniel (Fuqua School of Business, Duke) and David T. Robinson (Fuqua School) studied MBA students job searches and promotions, looking specifically at the effect of an optimistic disposition. But, as Psychology Today notes, “a targeted use of optimism may actually be more effective than a blanket policy of all optimism, all the time.”