Can pessimism be beneficial?

przestraszona studentka
przestraszona studentka

Published: 07-11-2021

In previous articles, I wrote about the positive distortions of our image. The fact that most think they are better than most; that when we succeed, we conclude that it is our merit, and if we fail, we were simply unlucky; that we don’t believe that something bad could happen to us and the like … but there are also people who seem unreasonably pessimistic.

As it turns out, for some people, irrational pessimism can pay off. Surely everyone knows or knew people in their school days who, before each test or exam, claimed that they could not do anything and would certainly fail, despite the fact that their grades from previous tests suggested otherwise. Such people are often characterized by what is known as defensive pessimism. An overly pessimistic belief that they know nothing motivates them to learn.

One study (Norem & Cantor, 1986) compared the results of the optimists and the defensive pessimists. Some of them were told that based on their academic performance, it could be assumed that they would be very good at the tasks they were supposed to perform as part of the experiment. Optimists who heard they were going to do well fared better than those who did not, and among the defensive pessimists those who were told they would do very well fared worse than those who did not hear that. So this means that some people need to think pessimistically about the result in order to achieve a good result. Fear motivates them to work harder.

While we are already at the exams, I will also mention the self-handicapping strategy, which can also have some positive effects, but not in the form of a better grade in the exam. Self-handicapping is about reducing the likelihood of getting a good grade, such as by partying the day before the exam. Failure in the exam can then be explained by lack of sleep and malaise, and not a lack of skills. A person who studies for a long time and yet does not get a satisfactory result may find that they are not very intelligent, which will negatively affect their self-esteem. On the other hand, a person who comes to the exam with a hangover may still think of himself as an intelligent person because failure may have been caused by a hangover. If, on the other hand, despite a hangover, such a person scores a high mark, he can say that he is so capable that he was not even bothered by lack of sleep and a headache. So by self-handicapping, regardless of your exam result, you can maintain or increase your self-esteem.


Norem, J. K., Cantor, N. (1986). Defensive pessimism: Harnessing anxiety as motivation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 51(6), 1208-1217.

Author: Maja Kochanowska

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