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Optimism and Pessimism


Explanations > Preferences > Optimism and Pessimism

Optimism | Pessimism | So what?


A classic choice is whether to assume the best or the worst thing will happen. This may be based on inherited traits with a likely significant experiential influence.


Optimists assume that the best will happen or that they will be luckier than other people. They are hopeful, believing that good things can happen to them.

Bad optimists are blind gamblers. Their assumption that fate will always deal them a good hand leads them to lose out, and possibly often and big-time. They do not learn from experience and just keep sticking their necks out too far.

Optimists explain things in three ways:

  • Internality – the cause of things are within my control

  • Stability – the cause of things will always be present

  • Globality – causality will influence not only what happened, but everything else

Effective optimists, on the other hand, have some sense of realism, but their attitude leads them to not only take risks but act in a way that increases the chance of good things happening. They also set more challenging goals and so increase their chance of greater success.

People like working with optimists, which can make them more effective leaders, particularly if they also have good judgement.

From an evolutionary perspective, optimism is helpful for survival of the species, if not always survival of the individual. Optimism encourages us to take risks, which can help us learn and improve.

Even when optimists fail, they do not feel bad (as pessimists may think they should), as they still are optimistic about the benefits of learning and the potential for the future.


Pessimists expect the worst. They over-estimate risks, assuming that bad things will happen. Extreme pessimists expect the worst every time. They believe that good things only happen to other people. They set their personal success bar low and do not strive for what they believe they can never attain.

This can be a good survival strategy in that pessimists are ready for the risks. The question is what they do about it. If a pessimist is also a fatalist, then they will assume they can do nothing and so do not fight fate.

Effective pessimists, on the other hand, hedge their bets and, whilst they are not likely to become millionaires, they are also not likely to be paupers as they always play it safe.

Pessimists do not like failure, and a pessimistic approach makes failure seem more likely, leading to undue caution. A reason for this is that pessimists tend to attribute failure to personal characteristics, that when things go wrong it is somebody's fault, who should hence be blamed and punished.

Pessimism is bad for you health. In expecting the worst, the pessimist lives in constant stress and anxiety, which is bad for the body.

So what?

Persuade optimists by emphasizing the benefits and good things they may get. Persuade pessimists by playing up the bad things that may happen.

See also

Assumption principle, Stress, Blame


Carver, C. S., & Scheier, M. F. (2002). Optimism. In C. R. Snyder & S. J. Lopez (Eds.), Handbook of positive psychology (pp. 231-243). New York: Oxford University Press.


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