The Positives of Negatives
I'm a generally surly sort of person with the kind of face that inspires complete strangers to urge me to "smile!"
I resent that.
The bad mood gets a bad rap in America, land of the infernal optimist.
"People in the United States think of pessimism as wrong, sinful, demonstrating a lack of faith," says Julie K. Norem, a psychology professor at Wellesley College in Wellesley, Massachusetts. Norem quite literally wrote the book on pessimism, The Positive Power of Negative Thinking (Basic Books). "We believe very strongly in the power of positive thinking," she says. "We're suspicious of people who are negative. We think something is wrong with them, or they're not trying hard enough to be optimistic, or they're not competent."
Indeed. We sourpusses are told that if we can't say something nice to just zip it, that a grin will suffice in a rainstorm, that it takes more muscles to scowl than to smile. And, of course, strangers imagine they're doing us a favor by reminding us to cheer up.
I don't buy any of it. I've tried smiling in the rain. I got wet. So even though I live in the sunny Southwest, I keep an umbrella in my car at all times. You never know. Besides, as long as I have an umbrella, the sun will keep shining. That's just the way things work.
I don't lock my car either because I figure if I do, someone will just break a window to get in. (Yeah, it's happened. Three times.) Then they'll take my umbrella and it will rain.
My credo: Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you.
The way I see it, it's not that grumps have a dour view. It's that optimists don't see so well through those rose-colored glasses.
Happily, some psychological research backs up my view.
Last year Joseph Forgas, a psychologist at The University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, staged bag-snatchings in an experiment which concluded that people in a negative frame of mind are more accurate eyewitnesses. "It shows that our recollection of past events are more likely to be contaminated by irrelevant information when we are in a positive mood," Forgas reports.
In other words, cranky people's memories are less cluttered with little happy faces and rainbows.
In another recent experiment, Forgas found that people in a negative mood also have better analytical skills. He goes on to suggest that this may have implications for survival. After all, the more wary you are, the more likely you are to spot danger before it's to late. So it's possible that the sour shall inherit the earth. Smile about that, cupcake.
The debate about negative versus positive moods heated up in 1979 when a couple of psychologists, L.B. Alloy and L.Y. Abramson, conducted an experiment in which college students assessed how much control they had over a little green light. The researchers found that students who were depressed (according to a commonly used questionnaire) realized they had no control over the light no matter how many times they pushed a button. The relatively happy-go-lucky students thought that what they did really mattered.
From this experiment, Alloy and Abramson developed the theory of depressive realism, which says that depressed people have a more realistic worldview than optimistic people-who are presumably blinded by their own bliss.
The dark side of this research is that many scientists accuse it of lacking "ecological validity," or real-world relevance. "I think it's a laboratory phenomenon," says Norem. "Realism is a very slippery thing to get a handle on."
In addition, darnit, the follow-up experiments haven't produced consistent results. One experiment indicates that the depressive realism kicks in when stakes are low but not when they're high. Another experiment found that when asked to make predictions about things that would happen to them in the course of a semester, depressed students actually underestimated the number of bad things that would happen. (They were probably just trying to keep their sunny side up when making the predictions. We pessimists learn to keep our negativity under wraps.)
But depressive realism is not the last good word on stinkin' thinkin'.
Norem's professional interest in bad moods started when she was in graduate school. "I was working with my advisor who is extremely successful in his field but was nevertheless a pessimist. It became something to be explained," she says. The psychology lab in which she worked started exploring what they came to call defensive pessimism, which says that some people approach new tasks by imagining all the things that can go wrong.
Norem and her colleagues found that when they distracted pessimists before a task, preventing them from stewing in their own negative juices, the pessimists didn't perform as well on that task than they did when left to think through all possible outcomes, including abject failure. (And vice versa - optimists don't do as well when forced to imagine different outcomes instead of using their tactic of strategic optimism, which expects the best and avoids thinking about what might actually happen. The fools.)
So there are benefits for some of us to seeking the flies in the ointment when approaching a task. And if we share our view, we can help others to see the dark. "Listening to a defensive pessimist is a good idea in any group decision-making process," Norem says. "If you're prepared, you can prevent those thing from happening."
Indeed. In college, no matter how well I did on one test, I was always certain I would tank on the next. As a result, I studied obsessively. I ate nothing but protein before each test (I've heard it's good for brainpower). I wore earplugs in the test room. And I never took a test without at least a half dozen well-sharpened pencils in hand, in case five broke.
Straight As, baby.
Noren's research hasn't been happily embraced. "I've had lots of people read about my research and say, 'Well, that just can't be true,'" she says. But doesn't that just prove how optimists refuse to see the truth of the matter?
Norem also confirms my conviction that I was born with at least half a bad attitude. "People can do a lot about making choices, but different perspectives come about naturally," she says. "I think the hard-wiring comes in what kind of stimuli and information you're going to pay attention to first. People differ significantly in how much they're going to pay attention to negative versus positive information."
People also differ significantly in how much they want to pay attention to pessimists, and that really gets under my skin. Some days it seems everyone wants me to ac-cen-tu-ate the positive. Phooey!
Nevertheless, Norem cautions me to pick my battles. "Defensive pessimists can bug other people if they always insist on it," she says. "It can still work for them if they don't do it out loud."
She says nothing about how irritating happy talk can be to those of us who would rather gripe than grin. But that's the way it is in America. The grumps are pariahs and Chicken Little is not a hero because in that story, the sky doesn't fall.
But you know what? Sometimes the sky does fall. And wouldn't you rather be prepared than caught with nothing but a positive attitude?
"People who are defensive pessimists aren't doing it on purpose to be annoying and they don't need to be cured. They do have something to offer," Norem says.
Are you a defensive pessimist or a strategic optimist. Psychologist Julie K. Norem offers a self-test to help you find out. at www.defensivepessimism.com