Defensive Pessimism: When Anticipating the Worst Is Beneficial

Thinking positively and trusting fate doesn't always work. For this reason, anticipating challenges or adversities can also be useful. It allows you to be better prepared and develop coping strategies.
Defensive Pessimism: When Anticipating the Worst Is Beneficial

Written by Valeria Sabater

Last update: 07 November, 2022

“I’m sure it’ll all go wrong.” How many times in your life have you said this phrase to yourself? You’ve probably lost count. That’s because adopting the kind of mindset in which failure, error, disappointment, and even catastrophe loom on the horizon is extremely common. As a matter of fact, there are few characteristics so typical of the human being.

Preparing yourself for the worst, despite the fact that there are no indications that it’ll happen defines a type of defensive mechanism orchestrated by eternal anxiety. In fact, despite living in a society that repeatedly tells you to look on the bright side, it’s highly likely that you ignore this advice and only look on the dark side.

This kind of attitude has both advantages and disadvantages. Anxiety is a mechanism that seeks to guarantee your survival. Thus, although you may find it surprising, there are times when anticipating the worst makes it easier for you to put coping mechanisms in place to face the future, whatever it may hold.

Therefore, negative thinking can occasionally have certain benefits. That said, you need to know how to correctly read this mental approach.

Some people always see clouds on the horizon but, instead of being blocked by their fear, they meditate on possible mechanisms to protect themselves against stormy weather.

Woman with clouds to represent the defensive pessimist
Defensive pessimism is an emotion regulation mechanism that can be helpful at times and a hindrance at others.

The cognitive strategy of defensive pessimism

Defensive pessimism is a cognitive strategy that was defined in the 1980s by psychologist and Rutgers-Newark University president, Nancy Cantor. It’s a mechanism with which individuals prepare for the worst in the face of situations that generate anxiety.

We’re not referring to the eternal pessimist who uses a negative filter in each and every circumstance. The defensive pessimist only sees the negative in the kinds of events that cause concern. For example, a student who’s afraid of failing their exams, or a job candidate who fears not having any luck in the selection process, thus will continue to be jobless.

There’s an interesting nuance that identifies this type of individual. By anticipating possible negative effects, they develop an attitude aimed at improving their performance. They look for strategies to face any situation of challenge, risk, or threat. To put it simply, despite the fact that war hasn’t been declared, they’re preparing for it.

Defensive pessimism knows how to control anxiety. It’s advantageous to the individual and doesn’t disrupt their plans.

When negative thinking gives an advantage

You’ve probably long internalized the idea that pessimism is negative and optimism is lifesaving. However, over time you’ve discovered that a positive mindset doesn’t supply eternal happiness or prevent you from adversity. So, what about pessimism?

Psychologist, Julie Norem is renowned for her research on this topic. In her book, The Positive Power of Negative Thinking (2002) she talks about the personality of the defensive pessimist. Here are some of her most interesting observations:

  • Positive thinking can be ineffective when dealing with problems.
  • Modern life is orchestrated by dozens of pressures and challenges. The defensive pessimist is defined by adaptive anxiety. This allows them to develop an attitude of adequate coping in the face of difficulties.
  • Sometimes, negative thinking allows us to elucidate scenarios that we should prepare for. It also gives us a certain dose of reality by silencing magical thinking and the idea that everything will be fine.
  • The defensive pessimist seeks to control paralyzing anxiety. They take advantage of it and are motivated to act on any twist of fate.
Mind with a man inside symbolizing the defensive pessimist
The defensive pessimist applies prefactual thinking. They try to analyze the facts before they happen

How to use practical or defensive pessimism

The defensive pessimist, as we mentioned earlier, doesn’t get carried away by the kind of negativity that blocks and hinders achievements and progress. They don’t see everything in an adverse way, because they feel useless, insecure, or unhappy. They’re proactive people and know how to employ adaptive anxiety.

Could you, therefore, benefit from this mental approach in your daily life? In reality, it’ll always be preferable to employ this attitude instead of blind positivism which leaves everything in the hands of fate. Here are some helpful guidelines.

Prefactual thought

Prefactual thinking is a cognitive strategy in which you imagine or ponder possible outcomes about a future scenario. For example, when you’re faced with an event that makes you afraid or anxious, you visualize what would happen if you were to expose yourself to the situation. You think of the positive, neutral, and negative effects.

Once you’ve delimited the possible adverse scenarios, you reason about how you’d act in the face of the most unfavorable situations. In effect, the defensive pessimist anticipates the worst in order to be able to face it should it happen.

Anxiety management

The defensive pessimist knows how to take advantage of anxiety. They do so by taking advantage of the psychophysiological activation that it provides. They’re motivated, adopt a proactive attitude, and look for solutions to possible problems instead of being blocked by them, even if they haven’t yet happened. As Julie Norem explains in a classic 1983 study, anxiety acts as a motivating mechanism in these cases.

Although it’s easy to forget at times, adaptive anxiety seeks to facilitate your well-being by allowing you to face the risks and threats of your environment. Therefore, a crucial step is knowing how to regulate the set of emotions and sensations that this state generates in you. The goal is to dominate anxiety and make it work in your favor, not allowing it to dominate you.

Clarify your goals and purposes

Defensive pessimism is basically a cognitive strategy in which you imagine obstacles to your own success in order to act on them. Doing so not only affects your self-esteem and self-image but also allows you to improve your ability to achieve.

Therefore, you imagine the worst when faced with an event that makes you anxious but you remain clear, at all times, about what you want to achieve. For example, say speaking in public scares you because you’re afraid of making a fool of yourself. You don’t let that fear block you because you know what you want to achieve: to successfully speak to your audience.

You only need to focus on a specific fact. Having a negative thought or anticipating a failure that hasn’t yet happened doesn’t mean you’re suffering from a psychological condition. It’s simply your mind inciting you to prepare and be proactive and not give in. Fears shouldn’t block you, they should encourage you to overcome them.

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  • Norem, Julie & Cantor, Nancy. (1986). Defensive Pessimism. Harnessing Anxiety as Motivation. Journal of personality and social psychology. 51. 1208-17. 10.1037/0022-3514.51.6.1208.
  • Norem, Julie K., and Shannon Smith, ‘Defensive Pessimism: Positive Past, Anxious Present, and Pessimistic Future’, in Lawrence J. Sanna, and Edward C. Chang (eds), Judgments Over Time: The Interplay of Thoughts, Feelings, and Behaviors (New York, 2006; online edn, Oxford Academic, 22 Mar. 2012), https://doi.org/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195177664.003.0003, accessed 24 Oct. 2022.