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 of negative things and underestimate the likelihood of positive things, especially when it comes to assuming that future events will have a bad outcome.

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 do well.

The pessimism bias can distort people’s thinking, including your own, in a way that leads to irrational decision making, as well as to various issues with your mental health and emotional wellbeing. As such, in the following article you will learn more about the pessimism bias, and see what you can do to account for it effectively.


Examples of the pessimism bias

The pessimism bias is primarily associated with the tendency to overestimate how negative the future will be for you, in the sense that you overestimate the likelihood of bad outcomes and underestimate the likelihood of good outcomes. There are many examples of how this can affect your think, such as:

  • The pessimism bias can cause you to feel you’re likely to fail an upcoming job interview, even if you’re well-qualified for the job and have done well on similar interviews in the past.
  • The pessimism bias can 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, even though there’s no reason for you to think that.
  • The pessimism bias can lead you to give up on trying to make a positive change that you want to make in your life, by making you incorrectly think that you’re probably going to fail, no matter how much effort you put in.

In addition, the pessimism bias is also associated with similar patterns of negative thinking. For example, it can cause you to overestimate the likelihood that bad things will happen to someone that you care about, or to overestimate the likelihood that past events were going to end with a bad outcome.

Finally, there are also many examples of the pessimism bias in the animal world. For instance:

  • Bees sometimes display the pessimism bias when they are exposed to situations that cause them to feel anxiety.
  • Dogs sometimes exhibit the pessimism bias after being separated from their owners, even if they’re only separated for a short amount of time.
  • Horses tend to display the pessimism bias if they experience poor welfare, often as a result of things such as being kept in single boxes as opposed to being kept in stable social groups and having access to free-range.


The dangers of the pessimism bias

“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 psychologist Martin E. P. Seligman

Pessimistic thinking can lead to a variety of issues, including the following:

  • 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 sometimes a general social stigma against pessimism, which can cause pessimistic people to feel rejected by others.


The pessimism bias and depression

Depressed people are more prone to the pessimism bias, as 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, and there is a strong correlation between pessimism and other depressive symptoms, such as sadness, hopelessness, and feelings of helplessness. This could be attributed, among other things, 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.


The potential benefits of the pessimism bias

“In most circumstances, optimism appears to be the best strategy, because it allows individuals to acquire resources to pursue goals, be persistent, and be open to opportunities (if they are realistically available). Optimism fosters confidence in oneself and in the belief that one can succeed.

When danger is near, however, temporary (realistic) pessimism may be more beneficial, as all thoughts and actions will be directed toward addressing the threat at hand.

Pessimism may also be adaptive when it becomes clear that one will not achieve a desired goal in the near future (and it is the realistic outlook on the future), as it may prevent disappointment.

The most adaptive outlook therefore seems to be mostly optimistic, tempered with small doses of realistic pessimism when needed… The key appears to be able to shift between optimism and pessimism, rather than being locked into constant pessimism, or rigid optimism.”

— From “Seeing the glass half full: A review of the causes and consequences of optimism” (Forgeard & Seligman, 2012)

Earlier, we saw the various issues that are associated with the pessimism bias. However, there are also situations where a pessimistic viewpoint can be beneficial.

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 optimistic could mean that you end up being caught unprepared.

This form of positive pessimism is used as a tool that promotes thinking through future events, and preparing for them accordingly, in a way that helps you feel empowered to deal with the future, rather than anxious or helpless.

In addition, pessimism can also be helpful as a coping mechanism, in two main ways:

  • Pessimism can help you prepare mentally for future events. For example, it can help you prepare for a future situation where you’re likely to be disappointed. When used in this manner, pessimism is generally referred to as defensive pessimism.
  • Pessimism can also help you deal mentally with past events. For example, this can involve 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. When used in this manner, pessimism is generally referred to as retroactive pessimism.

Overall, while the pessimism bias is associated with various issues, and can therefore be problematic in many situations, it can also be beneficial in certain cases, and particularly when it’s used as a tool to motivate planning or as a coping mechanism. This means that while you will likely want to avoid the pessimism bias in many situations, there will likely also be cases where you’ll want to use it to your advantage.


Caveats about the pessimism bias

First, it’s important to note that there’s no single clear definition for this bias that is used across all discussion—both scientific and otherwise. In general, this term is primarily used to refer to cases where people overestimate the likelihood of negative future outcomes, particularly with regard to the likelihood that they themself will experience them. However, it can be be used to refer to other types of irrationally pessimistic views, such as the tendency to be pessimistic about your coping abilities.

Second, as with many similar psychological phenomena, there is much variability with regard to the pessimism bias. This variability means, for example, that different people will experience the pessimism bias to different degrees in different situations. This variability occurs as a result of various factors, such as what culture a person comes from; for example, research suggests that there is a significant difference between European Americans and Japanese peoples when it comes to displaying the pessimism bias.

Finally, note that there are situations where people display an optimism bias rather than a pessimism bias, which involves underestimating the likelihood of negative things and overestimating the likelihood of positive things. Whether they display one or the other depends on various factors, and some people might display an optimism bias in certain situations and a pessimism bias in others.

Note: another mindset that’s often discussed alongside pessimism and optimism is realism, which involves perceiving things as they are, rather than pessimistically or optimistically.


Accounting for the pessimism bias

“Pessimism has a role to play, both in society at large and in our own lives; we must have the courage to endure pessimism when its perspective is valuable. What we want is not blind optimism but flexible optimism—optimism with its eyes open. We must be able to use pessimism’s keen sense of reality when we need it, but without having to dwell in its dark shadows.”

— From “Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life

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.


Helping others avoid the pessimism bias

You can use the above techniques to help other people deal with their own pessimism bias. You can achieve in various ways, such as by guiding them through the use of these techniques directly, or by teaching them about the pessimism bias and about the techniques that they can use to avoid it, and then letting them do it on their own.


Accounting for other people’s pessimism bias

In some cases, it can be beneficial to simply keep in mind that other people might experience the pessimism bias, even if you don’t intend to help them avoid it, for whatever reason. In such cases, keeping this in mind can help you in various ways, such as by helping you predict people’s decision-making more accurately, and by helping you better understand why they acted the way that they did.


Warning about pessimism, depression, and mental health

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 of negative things and underestimate the likelihood of positive things, especially when it comes to assuming that future events will have a bad outcome.
  • 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 do well.
  • 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 want to learn more about the topic, a relevant book you should look at is “Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life“.