The Positive Power of Negative Thinking

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Does it pay off to always look on the bright side of life? Does positive thinking actually make you more successful? Psychologists Julie Norem and Nancy Cantor classed people into two groups: strategic optimists and strategic pessimists. Strategic optimists envision the best possible outcome and plan accordingly. Strategic pessimists think that despite past success, future projects might not go well and so offer cautious predictions about outcomes. Norem and Cantor tested how well each group performed. Adam Grant at Lifehacker writes:

Most people assume that strategic optimists outperform defensive pessimists, because they benefit from confidence and high expectations. Norem and Cantor found that defensive pessimists were more anxious and set lower expectations for themselves in analytical, verbal, and creative tasks. Yet they didn’t perform any worse.

“At first, I asked how these people were able to do so well despite their pessimism,” Norem writes in The Positive Power of Negative Thinking. “Before long, I began to realize that they were doing so well because of their pessimism… negative thinking transformed anxiety into action.” By imagining the worst-case scenario, defensive pessimists motivate themselves to prepare more and try harder.

So negative thinking motivated the pessimists to prepare for bad outcomes. In the comments at Lifehacker, Tristan explains how pessimism can be a strength:

As an engineer, I find that a healthy dose of pessimism helps me evaluate the success of a project. If I can mitigate all of my negative thinking of "what if this goes wrong", then a project will have a much better chance to succeed.

I had a long talk with a developer who has been cludging together accounting software for a few decades and his biggest stumbling block was the assumption that things would work.

I've always felt that one of my best traits was my ability to be pessimistic about a problem. I'm an engineer, nothing is impossible, but some things require a bit more effort. The danger of pessimism happens when you start convincing yourself that things are hopeless and that it will never work, but there are times when you gotta be realistic and recognize that the effort required to make something work isn't worth the results.   

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