The Pessimism Bias: When Things Seem Worse Than They Are

The Pessimism Bias


The pessimism bias is a cognitive bias that causes people to overestimate the likelihood that bad things will happen. For example, the pessimism bias could make someone believe that they’re going to fail an exam, even though they’re well-prepared and likely to succeed.

This bias distorts people’s thought process, and can be detrimental to your emotional wellbeing, which is why it’s strongly associated with various mental health issues, and most notably with depression. As such, in the following article you will learn more about this bias, and about how you can account for it in your thinking.


Examples of the pessimism bias

The pessimism bias can affect your thought process in various situations, by causing you to overestimate the likelihood that bad things will happen to you. For example, the pessimism bias can:

  • Cause you to feel you’re unlikely to succeed on an upcoming job interview, even if you’re well-qualified for the job and have done well on similar interviews in the past.
  • Make you believe that you shouldn’t approach a person that you want to talk to, because of the false assumption that they will probably dislike you.
  • Lead you to give up on trying to make a positive change that you want to make in your life, by making you think that you’re probably going to fail, no matter how much effort you put in.

Overall, this bias causes you to view events in an overly pessimistic way. As we will see in the following section, this affects you negatively, for several reasons.


The problem with pessimism

“The defining characteristic of pessimists is that they tend to believe bad events will last a long time, will undermine everything they do, and are their own fault. The optimists, who are confronted with the same hard knocks of this world, think about misfortune in the opposite way…

These two habits of thinking about causes have consequences. Literally hundreds of studies show that pessimists give up more easily and get depressed more often. These experiments also show that optimists do much better in school and college, at work and on the playing field…”

— From “Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life“, by renowned psychologist Martin E. P. Seligman

The examples that we saw earlier illustrate some specific cases where pessimism can have a negative impact on your thinking. By generalizing these examples, we can come up with the following ways in which pessimism can be detrimental:

  • Pessimism can cause you to avoid trying to accomplish things, due to the assumption that you will fail.
  • Pessimism can cause you to feel more anxious, due to the assumption that you are currently doing worse than you really are.
  • Pessimism can cause you to feel bad about past events, due to the assumption that things went worse than they really did.

As such, a pessimistic outlook is associated with various issues, including an increased prevalence of health problems and a difficulty in adjusting to new situations. Furthermore, there is a general social stigma against pessimism, which can cause pessimistic people to feel rejected by others.

Unsurprisingly, depressed people are more prone to the pessimism bias. This is evident in the fact that depressed people are more pessimistic when predicting future events, compared to non-depressed individuals, even when they are given the exact same information with which to make their predictions.

As such, pessimism is considered to be one of the key symptoms of depression. Essentially, there is a strong correlation between pessimism and other depressive symptoms, such as sadness, hopelessness, and feelings of helplessness. This could be attributed to the fact that the areas of the brain that mediate feelings of optimism tend to show irregular activity in depressed individuals.

However, it’s difficult to conclusively state whether people are pessimistic because they are depressed, or whether they are depressed because they are pessimistic. Nevertheless, while the nature of the relationship between pessimism and depression is complex, what is clear is that the two are strongly associated with each other. This highlights why the pessimism bias can be problematic, and why it’s important to be aware of it.

Note: Humans aren’t the only ones who can suffer from an unnecessarily pessimistic viewpoint at times. Research shows that various animals also exhibit this kind of cognitive bias in various conditions. Bees, for example, exhibit a pessimistic bias when they are exposed to situations that cause them to feel anxiety, while some dogs exhibit a similar bias after being separated from their owners, even if it’s only for a short amount of time.


Positive pessimism

So far, we saw the many issues that are associated with having a pessimistic viewpoint. However, there are also situations where pessimism can serve as a valid cognitive strategy, that helps us make better decisions.

For example, research shows that the use of pessimism as a defensive strategy can help people perform better on various decision-making tasks. This is because pessimistic thinking encourages people to set realistic expectations for themself, while also encouraging them to prepare for possible difficulties that they might encounter in the future.

This beneficial effect is especially pronounced in situations that are perceived as risky. This is because, in situations where there is a high likelihood of a negative outcome, preemptive pessimism can help you prepare for those negative outcomes in advance, whereas being overly optimistic could mean that you end up being caught unprepared.

Based on this, we see that positive pessimism (also known as defensive pessimism) is a helpful strategy, which involves using your pessimism as a tool that promotes thinking through future events, and preparing for them accordingly. This helps channel pessimistic tendencies in a productive manner, that helps you feel empowered, rather than helpless.

In addition, pessimism can also be helpful as a coping mechanism:

  • Pessimism can help you prepare yourself for future disappointments. This involves telling yourself that you are unlikely to win something that you want, in order to help you prepare mentally for possible feelings of failure in the future.
  • Pessimism can also help you deal with past failures. This is called retroactive pessimism, and it involves changing your perception of past events which led to an undesirable outcome, so that in retrospect you can feel that this outcome was inevitable, which can help reduce your sense of disappointment.

Overall, based on this we see that while pessimism can be problematic in certain situations, it can also be beneficial when it’s implemented as a defensive cognitive strategy or as a coping mechanism. In the next section, you will read more about how you can mitigate negative pessimism, and channel it into a more productive mindset that can help you take advantage of pessimistic tendencies in order to make well-informed decisions.


Accounting for the pessimism bias in your thinking

So far, we saw that people sometimes have a pessimistic bias, which causes them to overestimate the likelihood that bad things will happen. This bias can either affect you in a negative way, if it causes you to feel hopeless about your chances or to feel bad about your performance, or it can affect you in a positive way, if it helps you prepare for difficult situations or cope with negative outcomes.

The difference between the two forms of pessimism lies in how you channel your pessimistic outlook. For example, imagine a scenario where you have an important exam coming up in a few days. Even if you’ve done well so far in the course, the pessimism bias might cause you to assume that you’re going to do badly on the exam.

There are two ways in which this bias can affect the way you prepare for the exam:

  • Negative pessimism will cause you to assume that the exam is going to be hard, and that you’re going to do badly on it regardless of how much you study, so there’s no point in wasting a lot of time studying in the first place.
  • Positive pessimism will cause you to assume that the exam is going to be hard, but that you can do well if you prepare accordingly, so you should make sure to spend enough time studying.

The main difference here is that in the case of negative pessimism, the pessimistic viewpoint will make you think that your ability to do well on the exam is fixed, and cannot be influenced by your willingness to put in effort into studying. Conversely, in the case of positive pessimism, your pessimistic viewpoint will cause you to assume that the exam is going to be difficult, while at the same time promoting the idea that you should prepare accordingly, as doing so will ensure that you do well on the exam.

As a result, when you channel your pessimism in a positive way, the thought that the exam is going to be difficult ends up encouraging you to apply yourself and study a lot, so that you can deal with the predicted difficulty of the exam. This means that in this case, rather than making you feel helpless, having a pessimistic outlook can actually help you feel more motivated, and can prompt you to take action.

Overall, this exemplifies the difference between negative pessimism and positive pessimism. Specifically, while both forms of pessimism cause you to assume that a situation in the future is going to be difficult to handle, negative pessimism discourages you, and causes you to feel bad and give up prematurely, while positive pessimism encourages you, and prompts you to prepare accordingly.


Implementing positive pessimism using the think-through process

One of the best ways to implement positive pessimism is to use the thinking-through process:

“This thinking-through process may help individuals using defensive pessimism to respond to their anxiety by motivating the efforts necessary to avoid contemplated disaster. They construct different scenarios that illustrate the possibility of both negative and positive outcomes and alternative pathways to each…

…this thinking-through process functions as a way for them to acknowledge their apprehensions and negativity and then cognitively work through it—just as a cognitive therapist might help an anxious or depressed patient by pointing out maladaptive cognitions and slowly guiding the client to more adaptive ways of thinking by proposing alternatives, pointing out contradictions or overgeneralizations, and so forth…

Through this process, defensive pessimists feel better, feel less anxious and more in control, and their performance should thus be less likely to be disrupted by anxiety. As a consequence, they should also feel better about their performance after the fact.”

— From “Strategy-Dependent Effects of Reflecting on Self and Tasks: Some Implications of Optimism and Defensive Pessimism” (Norem & Illingworth, 1993)

Essentially, this means that you should use your pessimism in order to motivate yourself to prepare for difficult situations, so that you are better able to handle them.

Specifically, try to think through the situation that you feel pessimistic about. If you believe that you are likely to fail at something, ask yourself why you believe you are likely to fail, and what you can do to reduce the chances of failing. Try imagining specific scenarios that you think might lead to failure, and come up with solutions that will help you deal with them.

Going back to the example of believing you are likely to fail an exam, you need to first ask yourself why you think you are going to fail, and identify the areas that you believe will be problematic. Then, list the reasons why those areas are likely to be problematic, and figure out a plan which will allow you to deal with them effectively, so that you will be better prepared for the exam.


Final words on pessimism and depression

In this article, we saw how pessimism can either hurt you or benefit you, based on the way it affects your thinking. We also saw how you can channel your pessimism in a positive and productive way, that helps you prepare for the future or deal with past events.

However, as we saw at the beginning of the article, overpowering, chronic pessimism is considered to be one of the main symptoms of depression. While the tips in the article can be beneficial in mitigating the influence of negative pessimism in some cases, they are unlikely to solve pathological mental health issues. If you think that your pessimism could be a symptom of serious depression, consider seeking professional help.


Summary and conclusions

  • The pessimism bias is a cognitive bias that causes people to overestimate the likelihood that bad things will happen.
  • In general, pessimistic tendencies can be detrimental to your health and wellbeing, which is why overpowering, chronic pessimism is one of the main symptoms of depression.
  • However, pessimism can sometimes be beneficial, when it helps you prepare in advance for risky situations, by ensuring that you are aware of any difficulties that you might encounter. This type of pessimism is referred to as positive pessimism or defensive pessimism.
  • The main way to channel your pessimism in a productive way is to use the think-through process. This involves using your pessimism in order to consider how future events might unfold, and preparing yourself accordingly, by anticipating problems that you expect to encounter, and trying to come up with solutions for those problems in advance.
  • Defensive pessimism can also be a beneficial coping mechanism, that helps you handle, from an emotional perspective, events where you might achieve a negative outcome, or past events that had a negative outcome. In such cases, defensive pessimism can make you feel that the negative outcome is inevitable or was inevitable, which can reduce your sense of disappointment.


If you found this article interesting, and you feel that you want to learn more about the topic, there are two relevant books you should look at: “The Uses of Pessimism and the Danger of False Hope” and “Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life“.