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Beyond Optimism Versus Pessimism

A more nuanced view is more realistic.

 Photo by Manu Schwendener on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Manu Schwendener on Unsplash

Do you tend to be an optimist or a pessimist? Do you generally see the glass as half full or half empty?

I recently had a conference call with some executives in the financial services field during which I introduced some trends that pose serious competitive pressures for the industry. In response to my analysis, one of the executives said: “Well, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be optimistic about our future.” She clearly saw the glass as half full.

I was a little taken aback by this comment because in my estimation, looking at the situation through rose-colored glasses wasn’t immediately warranted. I thought a more sober view of the seriousness of the situation was called for and that optimism might be justified once an effective set of strategies was established. I thought we should take off the tinted glasses to see things clearly and then possibly put them back on once we had accurately assessed the situation.

People often think of optimism and pessimism as two ends of a single pole. Either you lean towards the optimism side or the pessimism side, and we can therefore characterize people as either relatively optimistic or relatively pessimistic. However, research shows that it’s not quite so simple. Optimism and pessimism can be thought of as two distinct psychological systems that interact. And although it may generally be better for optimism to dominate, at least mildly, it may sometimes prove beneficial to consider both optimistic and pessimistic thoughts. For example, people suffering from arthritis are better able to cope with their condition when they are high on both optimism and pessimism simultaneously.

Other research has suggested that it might be better to be more or less optimistic at different times. For instance, people tend to be unduly optimistic about themselves and their future. However, if we adopt a more evenhanded, deliberative mindset we can reduce this optimistic bias and make ourselves less susceptible to believing that we are immune from risk. This would seem desirable when you are assessing the risks associated with finding a lump on your body, betting your mortgage payment on black at the roulette table, or considering how competitors might try to steal your business. Once a stark assessment of the situation is achieved and a reasonable course of action determined, optimism may then become highly useful because it will ramp up motivation to implement the strategy and stay the course in the face of setbacks.

A number of psychological topics that are similar to optimism have characteristics that are more nuanced than they appear at first blush. For example, do you tend to be hopeful? That question may actually be misleading. Hopefulness is often thought of as having two components – one that deals with the methods you can think of for accomplishing things that are important to you, and another that deals with the likelihood that you will actually implement those methods. You may be high on the first but low on the second, but both are necessary to experience hopefulness. Thinking about hope in a unidimensional way is incomplete and may be less helpful to you than if you recognize its dual nature so that you can intervene most appropriately to enhance your level of hope.

Consider another example. Are you confident that you can accomplish your goals? Again, thinking of confidence as unidimensional may be distorted and detrimental. Confidence can be broken down into whether or not you think you have the personal wherewithal to effectively deal with situations and execute the behaviors needed to achieve your goals, but it also involves the confidence that you can acquire and leverage all of the required external resources you need. This is called “means efficacy.” Even if you are knowledgeable, skilled and experienced at some task, you may still not be confident you will succeed at it because you are unsure you will be able to secure the resources you need. Thinking about confidence in a more nuanced way can help you make better decisions about how to enhance it in your own life.

The simple and accurate answer to the question of whether the glass is half full or half empty is that it is both. It is always, literally both. Psychological constructs are often more complicated than they first appear and to fully leverage their usefulness we need to understand them in more than a unidimensional way. Optimism and pessimism can co-exist, and the best life outcomes may be achieved if they are considered together. It may sometimes be beneficial to own rose-colored glasses, but I think it is particularly advantageous to wear bifocals.

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