Defensive Pessimism

Defensive Pessimism Definition

Defensive pessimism is a strategy people can use to manage their anxiety. Those who use the strategy feel anxious and out of control as they think about an upcoming situation. In response to those feelings, they set pessimistic expectations about how things will go, and they mentally rehearse all the things they can think of that might happen. Thinking in specific and vivid terms about things that might go wrong helps these individuals focus on what they can do to prevent the disasters they imagine.

Defensive PessimismDefensive pessimism is an example of an affect regulation strategy. These strategies describe the ways that people try to handle their emotions in everyday life. The strategy of defensive pessimism prevents anxiety from interfering with what individuals want to accomplish, and those who use the strategy typically perform well.

Varieties of Pessimism

Defensive pessimism is different from other kinds of pessimism, such as dispositional pessimism (also known as trait pessimism) and attributional pessimism (which focuses on how people interpret past negative events). Dispositional pessimism refers to the general tendency to have negative expectations about future events, while attributional pessimism refers to whether you think past negative events were caused by internal, stable, and global factors (i.e., the causes were internal to you, they won’t change over time, and they’ll affect everything). Both of these kinds of pessimism exert a general influence on behavior in most situations. In contrast, defensive pessimism is more specific and more focused on the process that describes how individuals’ expectations in a particular situation are connected to what they do. Defensive pessimism and other affect regulation strategies are similar to coping strategies, except that they do not typically refer to how people cope with particular external events or crises (e.g., bereavement or severe illness). Instead, they focus on everyday thoughts, feelings, and motivations, such as how a person deals with feeling anxious before giving a speech or meeting a blind date. If an individual has different goals or different feelings or a different outlook in one kind of situation than in another, this perspective would predict that the individual would use different strategies in those different situations. Thus, a person might use defensive pessimism in work-related situations but not in social situations, or vice versa.

How Defensive Pessimism Works

Students are sometimes anxious about their exams. Students using defensive pessimism would be likely to convince themselves that they were certain to fail miserably on the next test. A defensive pessimist would then imagine discovering incredibly hard questions that refer to obscure facts, or sitting down to take the test and being unable to remember anything. This negative thinking helps those using defensive pessimism to figure out what they need to do to prevent the bad things that they have played through in their minds from actually happening. The thinking-through process accomplishes two things. It motivates defensive pessimists to focus on action instead of their anxious feelings, and because the process is typically detailed and specific, it functions as a guide to planning effective action. Potentially intimidating goals (e.g., “do well on a really hard exam”) are broken into smaller, concrete steps (e.g., “gather all the reference materials at your desk”) that are less intimidating and easier to accomplish. Defensive pessimism is similar to some of the techniques that clinicians and counselors use to help anxious people or those who are troubled by procrastination or lack of motivation.

Evidence for Defensive Pessimism

Most of the research on defensive pessimism contrasts it with a strategy called strategic optimism. Strategic optimism is typically used by people who do not feel anxious. These individuals set high expectations and actively avoid thinking about what might happen in an upcoming situation. Several studies have been done to compare defensive pessimism and strategic optimism, and most show that both strategies work well when they are used in appropriate situations. Some conditions, however, facilitate defensive pessimism but interfere with strategic optimism, while others facilitate strategic optimism and interfere with defensive pessimism.

For example, one study found that participants who typically use defensive pessimism performed better in a dart-throwing game when they listened to an audiotape prior to their game that mimicked the thinking-through part of defensive pessimism. In contrast, if they listened to a relaxation tape designed to prevent them from thinking about the upcoming game, they performed more poorly. Exactly the opposite happened for those using strategic optimism: They did better in the relaxation tape condition and worse in the thinking condition. Putting those who use defensive pessimism in a better mood, encouraging them to be more optimistic, or otherwise distracting them from using their strategy also leads to poorer performance. Results such as these suggest that defensive pessimism works well for those who use it, while encouraging them to use a more optimistic approach is not helpful. Other research shows that anxious people who use defensive pessimism do better in a variety of ways than anxious people who do not.

Defensive Pessimism Implications

Defensive pessimism research demonstrates how people are able to develop effective ways of managing their anxiety so that it does not interfere with their performance. It also implies that there are many paths that individuals can take to succeed.

Defensive pessimism research shows that many variables can influence the costs and benefits of a strategy, and no strategy is likely to be effective at all times for all people. In the United States, optimism is highly valued, and pessimism is considered less desirable. In Japan, China and Korea, however, optimism is less valued in social interactions, and pessimism is considered more appropriate. Defensive pessimism may be more socially accepted in those contexts and may have fewer costs, while strategic optimism may have fewer benefits. Different strategies may work best in different contexts, in response to different emotions, or for different people.


  1. Chang, E. C. (Ed.). (2001). Optimism and pessimism: Implications for theory, research and practice. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association Press.
  2. Norem, J. K. (2001). The positive power of negative thinking. New York: Basic Books.