GRAPHIC:  University of Chicago Magazine

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

Optimist or pessimist? Take the test.

Not sure which strategy you use? Take Julie Norem's test, reprinted here from The Positive Power of Negative Thinking (Basic Books, 2001).

Think of a situation where you want to do your best. It may be related to work, to your social life, or to any of your goals. When you answer the following questions, please think about how you prepare for that kind of situation. Rate how true each statement is for you.

Not at all true of me
Very true of me


___ I often start out expecting the worst, even though I will probably do OK.

___ I worry about how things will turn out.

___ I carefully consider all the possible outcomes.

___ I often worry that I won't be able to carry through my intentions.

___ I spend lots of time imagining what could go wrong.

___ I imagine how I would feel if things went badly.

___ I try to picture how I could fix things if something went wrong.

___ I'm careful not to become overconfident in these situations.

___ I spend a lot of time planning when one of these situations is coming up.

___ I imagine how I would feel if things went well.

___ In these situations sometimes I worry more about looking like a fool than doing really well.

___ Considering what can go wrong helps me to prepare.

To figure out where you stand, add your scores for all the questions. Possible scores range from 12 to 84, and higher scores indicate a stronger tendency to use defensive pessimism. If you score above 50, you would qualify as a defensive pessimist. If you score below 30, you would qualify as a strategic optimist.

If you score between 30 and 50, you may use both strategies, or neither strategy consistently. How you score will be influenced by the kind of situation you were thinking about when you answered the questions, because you may use different strategies in different situations.

Hone (or change) your strategy

Defensive pessimists are anxious by nature, and the very idea of performing a task activates that tendency. Their goal is to manage their anxiety, recognizing what might go wrong and what events they can control. They create contingency plans, and after the task they remember proactively, learning from their mistakes without dwelling on them.

While defensive pessimists are comfortable with this approach, other people aren't. So defensive pessimists should:

  • Understand why others react negatively to your strategy, and, says Wellesley College psychology professor Julie Norem, "don't take it personally."
  • Explain to others, "This is how I do things. I have to play through what might happen."
  • Or keep quiet. It's not necessary to run through scenarios out loud or in the presence of others-particularly children, who may become needlessly frightened. (Anxious children, on the other hand, benefit from guided use of defensive pessimism.)

In contrast, strategic optimists are not by nature anxious, so their goal is to stay that way. They prepare for tasks but don't let themselves think about how they'll do-this induces anxiety, which hinders performance. Afterward they tend to attribute success to their own talents and ability, and failure to bad luck or others' poor judgment.

If you're a strategic optimist, Norem has two pieces of advice: work with someone who is a defensive pessimist, and "Listen to him or her!" A defensive pessimist's trouble-shooting habits will rescue you from your greatest stumbling blocks: overconfidence and underpreparation.

Like defensive pessimists, avoiders and self-handicappers are anxious by nature. But their "coping" strategies are self-defeating. Because avoiders stay away from situations that induce anxiety, they can't gain experience, much less succeed. For self-handicappers, in contrast, the thought of failure induces anxiety, so they procrastinate or self-medicate, creating prepackaged excuses. Both types are so focused on avoiding anxiety that they miss out on "flow," or the enjoyable process of losing oneself in a task.

If you fall into either camp:

  • Realize your strategy should be to approach rather than to run away.
  • Recognize that you will fail-particularly while changing strategies and also long after adopting the new strategy. Remember: that's how to gain experience for future success.
  • Let yourself feel anxiety, but don't dwell on it. Get on with your goal.

No matter what your strategy, Norem offers hope: "Strategies-especially compared to traits like introversion and extroversion-are relatively changeable," she writes. "Rationally, we should change strategies, or drop current strategies, when we no longer need them or when they don't work well; likewise, we should be able to learn new strategies."

If you use strategies inconsistently, she recommends paying attention to when you feel the least anxious and notice which strategy you're using. When deciding whether to change strategies, evaluate your goal, Norem advises, and your approach's costs and benefits in reaching that goal. If your strategy no longer works, the best strategy is to let it go.
- Sharla A. Stewart




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