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The Perils of Pessimism

The link between impression management and mindset.

Key points

  • There is a link between pessimism, shared information, and likability.
  • Pessimists and optimists differ in attributing the causes of positive and negative events.
  • Negative information may negatively impact impression formation because people pay more attention.
Image by Pexels from Pixabay
Image by Pexels from Pixabay

You may have friends, coworkers, or even family members who often seem impossible to please. Whatever you do, it never seems to be good enough. “It’s not you. It’s me,” they insist. According to research, that might be true.

Likability Is in the Eye of the Beholder: The Perception of Pessimism

Many people are evaluated both personally and professionally through the revelations they make, both positive and negative. Concerns about impression management often drive people to selectively reveal past behavior and incidents, although many people also place a premium on honesty and integrity, wanting to share what they have learned from past mistakes.

When sharing information, however, some speakers perceive they are being judged unfairly for their honesty or, conversely, failing to receive the positivity they think they deserve for their past actions or behavior. Yet according to research, likability judgments are not always based on shared information. They are often in the mind of the perceiver.

Impressions in the Mind of the Perceiver

Leilani B. Goodmon et al. (2015), in a piece called “Jumping to Negative Impressions,” explored the link between pessimism, shared information, and likability.[i] They found that, generally, disclosing negative information will negatively impact impression formation because we pay more attention to it and consider negative behavior to reveal more information about the characteristics of the target. But do people think differently depending on personal disposition?

Goodmon et al. explored how people perceive first impressions differently based on their orientation (optimism or pessimism) and the valence of information the target reveals. They found that contrary to optimists, pessimists were more likely to attribute good events to causes that are temporary, specific, and external and bad events to causes that are permanent, global, and internal. They concluded that due to this difference in attribution for negative and positive events, pessimists might form different impressions of people regardless of whether they disclose negative or positive information.

Goodmon et al. had participants read one of two conversation scripts between an advisor and an advisee. The advisee either disclosed responsibility for a positive previous academic incident or a negative one. They found that compared to optimists, pessimists expressed less liking of the advisee overall, regardless of the valence of the information. And comparing likability ratings to optimists, they found that pessimists gave similar likability ratings to advisees who revealed a positive academic incident as the ratings that optimists gave to advisees who revealed negative incidents. They explained that if a pessimist evaluates you, you may find it harder to make a good first impression, even if you reveal responsibility for a positive incident.

The takeaway may be that instead of taking perceived negative judgment personally, we can consider whether the sentiment perceived or expressed is accurate and objective or filtered through the observer's disposition.


[i] Goodmon, Leilani B., Cristen Kelly, Mindy Mauldin, and Kimberly Young. 2015. “Jumping to Negative Impressions: The Relationship between Pessimism, Information Valence, and Likability.” North American Journal of Psychology 17 (3): 485–508.

More from Wendy L. Patrick, J.D., Ph.D.
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