"Maybe defensive pessimists don’t really need to be pessimistic. Could they perform just as well (or even better) if we could get them to be more optimistic? It is possible that their pessimism is “epiphenomenal,” something that goes along for the ride, and doesn’t really have anything to do with their anxiety or their performance.
This question became the focus of one of our early experiments on defensive pessimism, which demonstrated that the defensive pessimists’ pessimism really did work in positive ways. We identified and invited defensive pessimists and strategic optimists into a psychology laboratory to work on tasks that were similar to standardized aptitude tests.
These participants were successful students at a competitive university, so they all “realistically” could have expected to perform very well. Before they began, we measured how much anxiety and control they felt over the upcoming tasks. At that point, the defensive pessimists felt significantly more anxious and less in control than the strategic optimists, just as we had predicted.
We asked half of the participants how well they thought they would do on the tasks. The defensive pessimists set low expectations for their performance— significantly lower than those of the strategic optimists— even though both groups had comparable abilities. In other words, the defensive pessimists were pessimistic, again, as predicted.
We told the other half of the participants that we had looked over their records and knew that they would do well, “preempting” their own expectations, in the hope that the authority of our observation would manipulate them into setting more positive expectations than they otherwise would have. The defensive pessimists in this half of the group actually did set higher expectations than those in the other half who were allowed to predict without interference from the experimenter. Up to this point, the study shows only that defensive pessimists tend to be pessimistic and that they are not immune to the manipulations of tricky researchers.
The participants’ actual performance came next, and that’s the key part of the study. We found that when defensive pessimists were optimistic, their performance suffered, whereas they did just fine if left to their pessimism. Remember that the defensive pessimists started out being anxious and that the kind of tasks they performed were the same kind of tasks that anxiety disrupts. The anxious defensive pessimists who used their typical pessimistic strategy performed well, and their anxiety didn’t interfere with their performance. But when we took away their pessimism, we didn’t take away their anxiety. Instead, we disabled a key component of their strategy."
Julie Norem, The Positive Power Of Negative Thinking (via wretchedoftheearth)