December 8, 2012

"The Power of Negative Thinking."

"Both ancient philosophy and modern psychology suggest that darker thoughts can make us happier."
Just thinking in sober detail about worst-case scenarios—a technique the Stoics called “the premeditation of evils”—can help to sap the future of its anxiety-producing power. The psychologist Julie Norem estimates that about one-third of Americans instinctively use this strategy, which she terms “defensive pessimism.” Positive thinking, by contrast, is the effort to convince yourself that things will turn out fine, which can reinforce the belief that it would be absolutely terrible if they didn’t.
That's from a new article in the WSJ. There's a similar chapter in David Rakoff's great collection of essays "Half Empty." Excerpt:

[Norem's] research dealt with a specific kind of anxiety-management technique known as “defensive pessimism.” Defensive pessimism is related to dispositional pessimism—that clinical, Eeyore-like negativity—but it is, at most, a first cousin. One who is kickier and more fun to be around; played by the same actress but with her glasses off, a different hairstyle, and a “visiting for the summer from swinging London” accent. 
Both dispositional and defensive pessimists face life with that same negative prediction: “This [insert impending experience, encounter, endeavor here] will be a disaster.” But where the dispositional pessimist sees that gloomy picture as a verdict and pretext to return to or simply remain in bed, the defensive pessimist uses it as the first of a three-part process: 1) the a priori lowered expectations (the previously mentioned presentiment of disaster) are followed by 2) a detailed breakdown of the situation (the “this will suck because …” stage), wherein one envisions the specific ways in which the calamity will take shape. A worst-case scenario painted in as much detail as possible. The process culminates in 3) coming up with the various responses and remedies to each possible misstep along the way (“I will arrive early and make sure the microphone cord is taped down,” “I’ll have my bear spray in my hand before I leave the cabin,” “I’ll put the Xanax under my tongue forty minutes before the party and pretend not to remember his name when I see him,” etc.). A sea of troubles, opposed and ended, one nigglesome wave at a time. Defensive pessimism is about sweating the small stuff, being prepared for contingencies like some neurotic Jewish Boy Scout, and in so doing, not letting oneself be crippled by fear. Where a strategic optimist might approach a gathering rainstorm with a smile as his umbrella, the defensive pessimist, all too acquainted with this world of pitfall and precipitation, is far more likely to use, well, an umbrella.
Norem's book is "The Positive Power of Negative Thinking: Using Defensive Pessimism to Harness Anxiety and Perform at Your Peak."

28 comments:

Sofa King said...

I have found the Stoic philosophy to be incredibly useful on a day-to-day basis. I regret that so many people I know have an a priori assumption that ancient philosophies are stupid, wrong, or irrelevant. I blame postmodern philosophers who hacked at the very concept.

rhhardin said...

It's the Eeyore effect.

ErnieG said...

Positive thinking sank the Titanic; negative thinking put a man on the moon.

Erika said...

Hunh. I wouldn't describe positive thinking as "everything will turn out fine," or "nothing will go wrong;" I think of it as "whatever happens, I'll roll with it and choose to look on the bright side and work with whatever cards I'm dealt."

Ernie: I wouldn't equate overconfidence and lack of adequate preparation (what sank the Titanic) with positive thinking.

Erika said...

P.S. God rest David Rakoff's soul. The man was such a gift.

Ann Althouse said...

"God rest David Rakoff's soul. The man was such a gift."

Yes. I really miss him.

m stone said...

I think negative thinking works to reinforce the philosophy that I have some control of my world and only to the point of hard reality.

For coping, yes. For a fruitful and engaged life, not so much.

Yes, I've dabbled in it.

ambienisevil said...
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XRay said...

The Marine Corps taught me this, years ago... hope for the best, plan for the absolutely fucking worst. It works well.

Chip S. said...

Mel Brooks already put this idea to music.

ambienisevil said...
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XRay said...

Just read the extended post, damn. The intellectuals sure do dress things up with pretty words. Seems, to me, my DI's words (and others in the crotch) would be more accessible and understandable to most folks, the concept isn't that complicated.

wyo sis said...

There's a whole series of books trading on this concept. The "Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook" and all the iterations that came after it and a board and card game. Upper elementary and middle grade boys love this stuff. And I do to.

edutcher said...

Murphy's Laws of Combat is an excellent example applicable to all situations.

Dante said...

Isn't a lot of positive thinking really laziness? "Oh, it will all work out, I don't need to do anything." Or borrowing from future successes "I know I'm going to win," which adds positive feelings to the here and now.

I wonder too, how much outlandish positive projections allow people to do things they wouldn't normally do, and succeed. I've seen many projects with Rosy estimates of sales beat out other projects with less Rosy projections. So long as you can convince someone, the Rosy projects win out.

Same happens with projects with Rosy projections for completion dates, Rosy projections for problems algorithms will solve, etc.

The really bad news is that, while the Rosy Projection types end up swaying the efforts, and moneys of a lot of people, the consensus approach to projects often absolves them of responsibility. And often the managers too.

The truth-tellers tend to lose out, being starved for resources.

Bert Snopes said...

What? I didn't even know he was sick!

William said...

Both Doris Day and Billie Holiday have their relative merits. Apply "God Bless the Child" and "Que Sera Sera" as needed to the wounded areas.......I wonder what would have happened if Doris Day and Billie Holiday ever sang a duet. I think it would have caused a rupture in the earth's magnetic fields. Matter and anti-matter should never meet......

Henry said...

I believe in Ad Hoc Optimism.

It could be worse.

Tyrone Slothrop said...

That's me-- defensive pessimist. Now, my wife is an offensive optimist. Between us we've got it covered.

bagoh20 said...

"which can reinforce the belief that it would be absolutely terrible if they didn’t."

Then you really aren't any good at it. An optimist can't be disappointed, only impatient.

leslyn said...

I don't see the point in negative thinking.

Levi Starks said...

Thats why I come here,
To top off my negativity

Dante said...

I don't see the point in negative thinking.

That's because you don't understand that "positive" thinking is an abdication of responsibility.

leslyn said...

Nah, Dante. Levin Starks' point was better.

Katielee4211 said...

Kind of a neurotic thinking, but not woithout reality. I wouldn't label someone who can imagine a worse case scenario as a pessimistic necessarily. Realistic perhaps...in that they will take steps to deal with or avoid that particular cliff. You probably won't take the necessary steps to avert a disaster, if you aren't aware, or deny the disaster is plausible.

Sometimes it's prudent to do some perparation for the worst, and hope for the best. My opinion anyway.

Katielee4211 said...

I gotta amend that slightly. As an example, don't take the bear spray because you are sure and fearful you might run into a bear, but because you know it's bear country, and they might be there.
Then enjoy your hike.

mtrobertsattorney said...

What exactly is "negative thinking"? Does it include the guy who spends a good deal of time thinking about the possibility that he may one day wake up and find that he has an overwhelming desire to become a psychopath? In such a case, isn't there a danger that this negative thought may one day turn into a "positive" thought for this fellow?

VekTor said...

Of the Stoics, I found Epictetus to be a bit more off-kilter than I liked. I found the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius to be not only more accessible, but also far more practical.

It seems counter-intuitive at first, but over time I've found it to be more comforting to work through the possibilities of loss well before any of them happen... which has led me to a far greater appreciation of what I have now, and a far less anxiety-ridden experience of life.

How did Tim McGraw put it? "Live like you were dying"?