You know that old sports and military saying that the best defense is a good offense? Well, new research suggests we all might do better to play like the original Willy Wonka, scratch that phrase and reverse it: So-called "defensive pessimists" reportedly outshine optimists in performance, health and confidence.

What it means to be a defensive pessimist

Defensive pessimists are people who, rather than just lamenting in depression or blaming themselves for what's going wrong, use pessimism as a way to handle anxiety or other negative feelings. They essentially set low expectations and picture the worst case scenario (or 10 of them) in very detailed ways, letting their minds run with the "what-ifs". But then they take the time to come up with logical, realistic plans to address as many of those disaster scenarios as they can. This can include coming up with alternative options (not just the proverbial Plan B, but also C, D and so on through the alphabet). But it also means taking simple precautions to get a desired outcome. For example, if you imagined yourself forgetting an important report at home, you could put it in your bag the night before or set a smartphone reminder to double check that you've grabbed it. Risk management is like breathing for these people.

What the researchers have found

As Fuschia Sirois summarizes in an article for Science Alert, a study led by Mark D. Seery found that defensive pessimists performed better on word puzzles when researchers prompted them to imagine how a scenario might have negative outcomes. The researchers thus think the defensive pessimists can use a negative mood to motivate themselves to perform better.

In another study by J.K. Norem and J.A. Andreas Burdzovic, researchers looked at the self-esteem of university students. The researchers found that, over time, defensive pessimists had higher self-esteem compared to other anxious students, and that their self-esteem almost reached that of optimists. The team believes this might be because defensive pessimists see it as a success every time they're able to avoid a foreseen or potential problem.

Sirois also led a study of individuals with irritable bowel disease or arthritis. These are both conditions that typically get worse over time, but optimists in the study still saw their future health as improving. Sirois asserts that the pessimists thus might be more likely to engage in coping strategies necessary to manage symptoms, and that, in general, pessimists might be more likely to engage in preventative care, such as brushing their teeth or hand washing. They thus might gain a health advantage.

In your strategies for everything, plan for balance

Now, as Sirois points out, a pessimist is a pessimist in the sense that not everybody is going to be thrilled with all the precautions you take. They might see a lot of what you do as wasteful or fail to understand how taking precautions helps you feel better or achieve more. That means you have to communicate incredibly well about your rationale and feelings, and that you have to be patient with those who might not automatically "get it".

I know this one from my own experience. My husband, for example, doesn't mind (reasonably) spending money and taking vacation. By contrast, I have a hard time not filling free hours with work. I'm always seeing more things we could need the future money for, calculating what potential disaster scenarios or unexpected events will cost us. So we ram heads a bit in terms of scheduling. Fortunately, we're both pretty decent at compromise.

In the end, defensive pessimism has real, legitimate benefits. It can motivate you to take actions you otherwise wouldn't, and those actions can protect you or enable you to take steps forward. But living as a defensive pessimist myself, I can tell you that, as Kenny Rodgers croons in The Gambler, you have to know when to fold 'em. Pick your battles. You simply won't have the energy or resources to protect yourself from or plan for everything. Rather than seeing success as addressing all the potential scenarios, prioritize the top two or three scenarios that are most likely to actually play out. Take some time to balance yourself, appreciate all the good in your life and try new things. After all, making sure you've got working fire exits shouldn't stop you from throwing one heck of a party.

Published on: Mar 8, 2018