Defensive Pessimism

In Defense of Defensive Pessimism

There’s nothing like a Debbie Downer to ruin a holiday party. You know who I’m talking about, right? Someone who can’t stop talking about a contagious disease, a freak accident at a water park or water shortages across sub-Saharan Africa.

Debbie Downers are hell-bent on killing a happy vibe with a negative story, and they think it’s perfectly OK to join a conversation and only stop talking after everybody feels anxious and stressed.

But what if I told you that some Debbie Downers are geniuses in disguise, and that these hyper-negative people could even save your life?

What Is Defensive Pessimism?

Dr. Julie Norem is a leading researcher on defensive pessimism. Here’s her definition: “Defensive pessimists lower their expectations to help prepare themselves for the worst. Then, they mentally play through all the bad things that might happen. Though it sounds as if it might be depressing, defensive pessimism actually helps anxious people focus away from their emotions so that they can plan and act effectively.”

What if you’re the one who is obsessed with bad news? The one who is constantly warning everybody about what will go wrong?

I’m here to tell you not to stop. Your approach works. You are an insightful person who knows tomorrow isn’t promised to anybody. You don’t take this life for granted, and you won’t let an obvious mistake or stupid error get in the way of your happiness.

The Positive Case for Debbie Downers

Why am I so defensive of defensive pessimists? Well, because I am one. I’m always worried that I might get hit by a bus. Maybe that sounds ridiculous to you, but I saw a woman get hit by a bus when I was 7 years old. I don’t remember much about the incident except the sudden awareness that life is fleeting.

My defensive pessimism keeps me alive. I look both ways around buses. Then I look again. And I tell people about the accident to remind you that life is precious. I’m trying to save your life. Don’t let some stupid bus take you down.

I’m not alone when it comes to singing the praises of defensive pessimism. Adam Grant, a noted researcher and author, writes eloquently on behalf of defensive pessimists everywhere. He reminds us that when the world is full of optimists, a defensive pessimist can provide a contrary but much-needed counterpoint to an overly rosy point of view.

Are You One of Us?

Defensive pessimism may seem daunting to the strategic optimists among us. If you like to set high expectations and openly avoid thinking about failure, you’ll struggle to understand why someone is trying to warn you of a catastrophe that hasn’t yet happened.

But that’s OK. We’ll still fret about how to keep you safe. And keep your overly ambitious initiatives at work from bombing horribly out of the gate.

Are you one of us? Take this quiz and find out.

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