Optimists and Pessimists Deal With Bad News the Same: Study


There aren’t any differences between optimists and pessimists when it comes to hearing bad news, a new study suggests.

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The study, entitled “Even Optimists Get the Blues,” was published in the Journal of Personality. Kate Sweeny, a psychology professor at the University of California, Riverside and Angelica Falkenstein, a graduate student in psychology at UCR, led the study.

“The tendency to brace for the worst is actually quite common,” Sweeny said.

One example, Sweeney said, was how students await midterm grades. As time to receive their grades approaches, they become increasingly pessimistic about what their grades will be.

Kate Sweeny, Ph.D.

She said another example is when patients await results of a medical test or an election. While waiting, patients become convinced they are riddled with disease. Similarly, voters become increasingly pessimistic about their candidates’ chances as the election approaches.

“Although this tendency to brace oneself for potentially bad news is common, intuition might suggest that some people are more likely to brace than others – in particular, happy-go-lucky optimists would seem immune to the anxiety and second-guessing that typically arise as the decisive moment draws near,” she said.

UCR researchers tested participants’ intuition in nine different studies. They ranged from undergraduate psychology students in well-controlled lab situations to law graduates awaiting their bar exam results. Other studies observed participants using models such as peer ratings of attractiveness and feedback on an intelligence test.

With each study, the researchers assessed a participant’s natural tendency toward optimism or pessimism. They then examined whether optimists were less likely to brace for the worst as they awaited certain news compared to pessimists.

“Counter to intuition, optimists were not immune to feeling a rise in pessimism at the moment of truth. In fact, not a single study showed a difference between optimists and pessimists in their tendency to brace for the worst,” Sweeny said.

She said it became clear that bracing for bad news has its benefits. The well-timed pessimism has little emotional cost and protects people from unanticipated bad news.

“Fortunately, it seems that even the most ardent optimists can temper their positive outlook when it pays to do so.”

A Different Take on Optimism

Though optimists and pessimists were on the same level for the UCR study, optimism could help extend the life span of women. In a different study, scientists with the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston reviewed data from about 70,000 women.

Co-author Eric Kim and his colleagues looked at the self-reported optimism of each participant, in addition to other factors that could contribute to mortality risk, like high blood pressure, diet and exercise. The most optimistic women were found to be nearly 30 percent less likely to die from all causes.

“Our new findings suggest that we should make efforts to boost optimism, which has been shown to be associated with healthier behaviors and healthier ways of coping with life challenges,” Kim said.