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OCTOBER 2002, Volume 95, Issue 1
Written by Sharla Stewart
Illustrations by Henrik Drescher
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The Worst of All Possible Worlds

Nattering nabobs of negativity have a strategy that works as well as positive thinking. Too bad it doesn't work for everyone.

What if you don't finish reading this article? What if you don't even start it? What if the statistics don't add up? What if it fails miserably at conveying its point? What if you dislike its protagonist-an unassuming psychologist in Wellesley, Massachusetts? What if you think her research is dumb? What if you think it's not only dumb but out-and-out wrong-and you're someone who would know because you have your own doctorate in psychology? What if the Magazine's printer leaves out the story's last page, or the entire issue gets shredded in the mail? What if the damn thing is full of typos or modifiers misplaced in embarrassing places? What if all this fretting irritates you so much that the last thing you want to do is continue reading?

Now for a plan of attack.

Although the Magazine can't control whether you like Julie K. Norem, AB'82-much less whether the printer or the post office gets its job done-we can control accuracy, cite convincing evidence, and provide the "Letters" section for you to tell us where we-or Norem-err. We can proofread, check facts, muster our creativity, give it our all despite everything that could go wrong.

As for whether this multiparagraph exercise irritates you-well, you're probably a strategic optimist, so you wouldn't understand. For those who hear yourselves in this assembly of worst-case scenarios and contingency plans, welcome to Norem's favorite research population. You're a defensive pessimist.

It's mid-June on the Wellesley College campus, and Norem, a specialist in personality and social psychology, is reading aloud from her letters file. "This is a typical one: 'Dear Dr. Norem, For seven years I've read almost every positive-thinking book on the market, yet my attitude steadily grew worse. My self-condemnation for being so negative led to depression, anxiety, and terribly low self-esteem.

"'Then I found your book yesterday,'" Norem reads on. "'There's nothing wrong with me! There was nothing wrong with mom and dad either! We are all defensive thinkers! I cannot tell you the freedom and release I feel. I even brought out my Eeyore toy. I always hated Eeyore because I thought he was so negative. Not so.'"

Since Norem's book, The Positive Power of Negative Thinking, was published by Basic Books last December, she's received a steady stream of grateful responses. Many come from therapists and clinicians who treat fretful, anxious patients, the kind of people whom others avoid because their negative harping can be both depressing and counterproductive-or so it seems to more optimistic types. Norem's correspondents recognize in her research a workable method for helping such people manage their anxiety and tackle intimidating tasks.

The key to Norem's studies is where they begin. While her peers in academe divide the world into positive and negative thinkers and preach the power of positive thinking to the schlubs lumped in the negative camp, Norem draws different cross-sections, leading her to make different recommendations. Rejecting "positive" and "negative" as too general, she begins by looking at psychological states, separating persons who are by nature anxious from those who aren't. Nonanxious persons probably use what she calls strategic optimism.

Next she seeks out those who are anxious about the future rather than those whose anxiety stems from dwelling on the past-the latter are so-called dispositional pessimists and are the subjects of most negative-thinking studies. Among the future-oriented anxious group she distinguishes between those who can tolerate their anxiety enough to accomplish their goals (defensive pessimists-Norem's specialty) and those who are overwhelmed by it. Members of this last group tend to experience "premature cognitive narrowing," or paralysis by analysis. They either avoid anxiety-inducing situations entirely or subconsciously self-handicap by procrastinating or self-medicating with drugs or alcohol when faced by daunting tasks.

Because humans are complex creatures, it's possible to be more than one "type." Which strategy you use, Norem explains, "depends. Everything depends"-on the situation, on your environment, on what you consciously hope to achieve. In any particular domain-work, social interaction, home life-about 25 to 30 percent of Americans, Norem estimates, consistently use defensive pessimism, while 30 percent consistently use strategic optimism. That's roughly how subjects have divided up in Norem's studies over 18 years. Her samples have ranged from 60 nursing students to 498 Northeastern University undergraduates. (And the distinction about nationality is important, Norem says, because Americans tend to insist on optimism. In Asia defensive pessimism is more the norm. Since Norem's book was released in Taiwan this past June - its title translated as I'm Pessimistic But I Achieve - it's been selling like Starbucks.)

As for the other 40 to 45 percent, we may be inconsistent in our strategy, flip-flopping without noticing if one works better; we may have no strategy, avoiders and self-handicappers who succumb to paralysis by analysis; or we still may be developing a strategy because we lack experience in that domain or situation, as might be the case for a parent preparing for her eldest child to go away for college.

Ultimately, Norem says, it's all about goals. "A strategic optimist's unconscious goal is not to become anxious. A defensive pessimist's unconscious goal is not to run away." So defensive pessimists-who, despite being future focused, tend to be very aware of their faults and past mistakes-conquer their urge to flee by conjuring worst-case scenarios and a multitiered plan. But strategic optimists-who are by nature positive about their past performance and confident in their continued ability to do well-actively distract themselves from considering how they'll do on the task ahead.

In her book Norem gives the example of a strategic-optimist architect who reads travel brochures before big presentations, while his defensive-pessimist partner is busy making extra photocopies just in case. The self-handicapper, meanwhile, is still writing her presentation in the taxi en route to the meeting, and the avoider sorts envelopes in the mail room, too freaked out by the prospect of giving presentations to choose a career that might require such a stressful unknown in the first place.

On first impressions alone, one might conclude that Norem is a strategic optimist. She's blond, has a confident stride, and on this particular day wears a brilliant fuchsia blazer. Her book is written in a relaxed, chatty voice. She was recently promoted to full professor. And while the prospect of developing an entirely new psychometric methodology might lead a less confident researcher to stick with laboratory experiments-Norem is among the first to study defensive pessimists, so she's had to figure out the best questions to ask these new subjects-she has created a solid portfolio of real-life and longitudinal studies.

Yet her office has the tell-tale signs of a self-handicapper: piles of paper totter on stacks of books, transparencies spill from three-ring binders. Of course, she's one day away from her first sabbatical, so she may still be devising a strategy for this situation.

When asked where she falls on her research continuum, she first classifies herself as anxious (a fairly recent self-discovery: "I've spent a lot of time and effort withholding anxious feelings from myself"), then specifies her strategy by domain. At work, she's a recovering self-handicapper striving to use defensive pessimism consistently. "I can't think of a single time in my work life that I've been overprepared," she says. "It was a surprise to realize there was a more effective way of dealing with things." At home she's a strategic optimist turned defensive pessimist, the confident wife who never considered worst-case scenarios until motherhood struck and her sense of control disintegrated in the peanut-butter-covered faces of toddlers.

Telling a frazzled mother to stop worrying and look on the bright side doesn't help her problem-solve, and such advice, Norem has learned, is equally pointless for a defensive pessimist.

After graduating from Chicago 20 years ago, Norem entered the University of Michigan's graduate program in psychology, where she met professor Nancy Cantor, a defensive pessimist who actually coined the term (and who is now chancellor of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign). Cantor taught Norem that, given the same situation, some persons "see through the lens of anxiety and others don't."

If defensive pessimism was indeed a strategy for managing anxiety, Norem reasoned, then interfering with it at critical points would demonstrate how the process worked and whether it was as successful a strategy as positive thinking was typically proclaimed to be. So she and Cantor ran a series of experiments intended to tinker with defensive pessimists' thought processes. From a questionnaire similar to that on page 51, they culled subjects who fell on the extreme ends of the defensive pessimism/strategic optimism spectrum.

In one study some defensive pessimists were asked to predict their performance on a standardized test. Defensive pessimists, as part of their strategy and complicated self-concept, tend to set low self-expectations before a task, building confidence by drawing up contingency plans. Members of this group, true to form, expected to perform poorly. Meanwhile, other defensive pessimists were simply assured that, given their "records," they should expect to perform well on the test. These subjects set significantly higher expectations for their performance than the first group did. Norem guessed that, among these defensive pessimists, positive expectations would cause complacency, resulting in a failure to use their tried-and-true strategy for success. She was right: this group's performance fell well below that of the first.

In another study strategic optimists and defensive pessimists participated in a dart-throwing exercise. The subjects were randomly assigned to prepare in one of three ways. The first group engaged in what cognitive-behavioral therapists call "coping imagery," imagining something going wrong (such as hitting the researcher with a dart) and taking steps to prevent it. The second group practiced what sports-psychologists call "mastery," imagining a flawless performance. The third did a relaxation exercise, distracting themselves by visualizing a peaceful scene such as a beach. The study's defensive pessimists, Norem found, did best when they used coping imagery. Their performance declined when they imagined performing perfectly, and they did even worse when asked to behave like optimists and distract themselves. In contrast, strategic optimists performed best after the relaxation exercise and worst when they imagined things going wrong.

Norem next wondered how forcing worrywarts to take their minds off their troubles by keeping busy would affect their performance. She again provoked subjects' anxiety with an aptitude test. Before the test some defensive pessimists were told to outline possible outcomes; others were assigned random clerical work. The busywork, Norem reasoned, would keep them from rehearsing worst-case scenarios. Her results confirmed that suspicion: the second group's performance was considerably below that of the first.

Worries, Norem concluded, are exactly what defensive pessimists need on their minds. Trusting in their abilities by setting high expectations or distracting themselves by "thinking good thoughts" or staying busy can hinder their performance.

Because life, unlike these experiments, doesn't exist in a laboratory, Norem tested her findings in the real world. She asked 60 nursing students to outline their personal goals, which ranged from "saving to buy a house" to "rescuing a nephew from life on the streets." Subjects were equipped with beepers that randomly reminded them five times a day to fill out a questionnaire about what they were doing, whom they were with, how they felt, and whether their current activity was relevant to their personal goals. Some subjects were also asked to reflect on their progress toward those goals. At the study's end a semester later the defensive pessimists-and only the defensive pessimists-who did the reflection exercise reported less anxiety and more satisfaction. They also had made considerable progress toward their goals.

Similar findings came from Norem's longitudinal study of 90 members of the Wellesley Class of 1997, whom she followed through various major life events beginning with the 1993 new-student orientation. In each situation-entering college, choosing a major, graduating, finding a job, engaging in intimate relationships, having a child, switching jobs or careers-defensive pessimists' anxiety levels peaked before the event, as they conjured frightening scenarios. Yet afterward they reported outcomes as successful as those of strategic optimists.

Gaining the tools to dig up our beloved Eeyore and finally understand him is no small gift. And judging from the rubber necking in airports and on trains inspired by a book whose proud purple and yellow cover touts the power of negative thinking, Norem is onto something. Yet most researchers in personality and social psychology, she notes with frustration, don't pay attention to her work. Those who do point to her early longitudinal studies, which failed to prove that defensive pessimism is an "adaptive" strategy-that is, one that leads to successful outcomes, which she has now proven. Norem attributes this early failure to a lack of experience with the methodology. Now that she's tenured and published-and has learned the ropes of longitudinal studies-"I'm the token dissenter among the positive psychologists at all the meetings," she jokes.

And there are many positive psychologists. Norem's research, in fact, calls into question the methods of the positive-psychology movement that for the past two decades has dominated academic research. The movement's emphasis on positive thinking is intended, University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin Seligman and its other champions have said, to be an antidote to a field preoccupied with illness and disorder.

Yet their work, argues Norem, inappropriately lumps defensive pessimists in with other negative thinkers. Because defensive pessimists report high anxiety levels and certainly sound pessimistic, they are grouped with those who have negative dispositions and pessimistic attributional styles, such as dwelling on the past and believing that nothing will ever go well-thoughts defensive pessimists decidedly don't have. In fact, when anxiety is statistically removed from pessimism studies, Norem has shown, defensive pessimists turn out to be no more pessimistic than strategic optimists, who aren't dealing with anxiety anyway.

Norem is not alone in studying negativity, but her approach makes her distinct. At "The (Overlooked) Virtues of Negativity" symposium, part of the American Psychological Association's 2000 meeting, she was the only researcher focusing on strategy and process, goals and progress.

Being the odd person out hasn't affected Norem's own disposition. Reflecting on her time at Chicago, she notes that she has very few visual memories of people. "I think that's because I was listening to rather than looking at them," she says. "We were always exploring an idea for fun, over beer, over dinner. It was the only place I've ever been where every discussion began with Aristotle."

Norem credits Chicago for her persistence, and employing her defensive pessimism, she focuses on the future. An interesting personality trait has shown up in the part of her Wellesley Class of 1997 studies that tracks self-concept: the fear of being an imposter. Until now, the "impostor phenomenon" has been accounted for only anecdotally in psychology literature. Norem is intrigued. She's already considering her next research population: a group of Illinois men about to become fathers. She's devoting her sabbatical to reading everything she can find on impostors and devising a methodology for her next longitudinal study. The big question for the defensive pessimist in her now is, what if…?

 

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