Learning Lab

Being an Optimist or a Pessimist. Are the Labels Really Relevant?

By Amy Brann

Being an optimist or a pessimist – are the labels really relevant? 

When talking about optimism, the stereotypical question someone might ask you is:

“Are you a glass half full or a glass half empty kind of person?”

And although some people may be able to categorize themselves as one or the other, most of us would probably answer the question by saying that we are a bit of both.

Optimism and pessimism are not two ends of the same scale

Because although we often think of optimism and pessimism as two ends of the same scale, science is increasingly showing us that this isn’t the case. Instead, it is thought that they are an independent phenomenon. Separate entities which each have their own unique function in the brain.

Traditionally speaking, optimism is seen as the desired mental state, whilst pessimism is frowned upon. But the truth is that both have their own set of advantages and disadvantages. 

Optimism – the pros and cons

Optimism equips you with a positive bias in your thinking which can improve your ability to solve problems, cope more easily with stress and show great perseverance in the face of a challenge. It has also been shown to be generally beneficial for your health and well-being. In fact, there is no hiding from the large body of evidence which shows us how being optimistic is generally a good thing for your quality of life.

But it can also have its downsides. For example, being overly optimistic can blind you to the costs and consequences of a situation. You can overestimate the benefits, and underestimate the costs. And you can make poor decisions because you fail to make an accurate assessment of the number and magnitude of the risks. 

Pessimism – the cons and pros

In contrast, pessimism means that you are prone to seeing problems. What could go wrong? The worse case scenario. This can prevent you from embracing change, avoiding something that you really should be dealing with, or stopping you being able to move forward with a task you are working on.

But is can also help you to manage your confidence, your expectations and your feelings of disappointment. Because if you have low expectations of how something might turn out, then you can feel a boost of confidence when things turn out better than expected. In addition, expecting a less successful outcome can be an effective way to manage the unwanted anxiety associated with having very high expectations of the future. Similarly, if you can envision what might go wrong, then it can motivate you to make sure you are well prepared to cope with the worst eventualities.

A universal bias of unrealistic optimism

One of the interesting things about optimism though, regardless of whether you class yourself as an optimist or a pessimist, is that we all have an in-built bias for optimism. This bias, which has been extensively written about by scientists such as Tali Sharot, influences the way we interpret the world around us, often without our conscious awareness.

But if this bias is affecting us “under the radar” so to speak, how do we start to recognise when it might be influencing, or interfering with our thoughts and decisions to make them less realistic.

Well there are (at least) three main things to be on the lookout for:

Firstly you can have an unrealistic illusion of control. This is where you have an exaggerated belief about your capacity to control external events.

Secondly, you can have an unrealistic illusion of superiority. In this instance, your perception of yourself is more positive than it actually should be – in other words, you think you are more talented than other people.

Thirdly, and often considered to be the most classic form of the optimism bias, is the belief that you are less likely to experience negative events, and more likely to experience positive events than other people around you.

And all these biases have the potential to cause you to make poor decisions and create unrealistic strategy plans at work which are based on a misjudgement of the risks and benefits of the situation, of your abilities, or of how much control you have over the situation.

Don’t force fit me into a category

So next time someone asks you whether you think you are an optimist or a pessimist, tell them that you are both. Or Neither.

Because labelling yourself like this, whilst possibly useful if you are in the business of assigning people to specific categories or “types”, just doesn’t do justice to the complexity of your brain.

Instead, you could see your brain like a hugely complex audio mixing deck, where everyone has broadly the same set of buttons, sliders and dials, but their precise settings and positions vary from person to person. Therefore forcing yourself into a particular fixed category with concrete edges could seem a bit of a fruitless task.

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