The Psychology of Pessimism and Optimism

Whether you think a glass is half full or half empty may tell you something about the makeup of your brain as several studies have demonstrated a number of differences between the brains of positive and pessimistic type individuals. These differences are important to understand, seeing as excessively pessimistic thought patterns can lead to depression, anxiety and other mental health issues.

But while excessive pessimism might lead to serious problems, both positive and negative thinking have their place. Good mental health is really about getting the balance correct. Let’s look a bit closer at how this balance should work and how it looks in those with excessively positive or negative outlooks…

The ‘Backfiring’ Effect

A new study from Michigan State University (MSU) has found marked differences in the brains of optimistic and pessimistic individuals (read more here). In the study, 71 female participants (chosen as females are more likely to suffer from pessimism) were shown images and asked to place a positive spin on them. It was found that the participants who were identified as pessimists prior to the study were forced to think much harder to come up with the positive interpretations, as shown by increased brain activity.

For instance, participants were shown an image of a man holding a knife to a woman’s neck. While the positive group managed to come up with less distressing explanations relatively easily, the pessimistic group were forced to work much harder and saw an increase in brain activity that correlated with that.

Come up with anything positive yet?

What was particularly interesting though, was that the pessimistic group also actually had an increase in their negative thoughts while trying to come up with their positive interpretations. The theory behind this was that they were actually having to actively ‘push’ their negative interpretations out of their mind as they tried to find a more pleasant explanation.

Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain

In the book Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain, the author Professor Elaine Fox explained that pessimists had a weaker connection between their prefrontal cortex and amygdala. In other words, they had weaker connections between their ‘logical, higher thinking’ processes and their emotions and fight or flight.

Pessimists also show more activity in their right hemisphere as compared with their left. Similar observations have been noted in those suffering with depression (1).

Nature or Nurture

What’s more, pessimism has also been associated with the action of a particular gene: ADA2b. Those with a particular mutation on this gene are more likely to be optimistic.

Then again though, it’s also very possible that pessimism can be ‘learned’ through life experiences and this can be both specific to particular situations as well as generalized. Someone who has repeatedly injured themselves for instance might be more fearful when engaging in potentially dangerous activities, while someone who has won the lottery twice might be more likely to keep entering competitions and raffles.

Most likely our brains become optimistic or pessimistic as a result of an interplay between nature and nurture – whereby a genetic predisposition influences and cements our interpretation of events during the development of our personalities.

That said, studies have also shown that our tendency towards optimism or pessimism tends to be rather unchanging throughout our lives. That said, interventions such as cognitive behavioral therapy can be useful in helping patients to become less pessimistic.

The Importance of Pessimism and Optimism

As mentioned, the human brain needs both optimism and pessimism. While pessimism might seem destructive, it can actually be helpful in preventing us from taking unnecessary risks or acting recklessly. It can also make us more likely to take precautions and to come up with contingency plans. Someone who is too optimistic that things are about to get better, might be less motivated to try and improve their circumstances.

But a healthy dose of optimism is actually very much a part of human nature. When you compare our interpretation of events, most of us are actually optimists and feel that we are less likely to become ill, to get fired or to injure ourselves as compared with statistics. Likewise we fail to take odds into account when assessing our likelihood of winning the lottery. In one study (2), it was found that even when told the actual statistics for positive or negative things happen, the average individual will still refuse to change their unrealistic optimism. Tell someone how likely they are statistically to become ill or get divorced and they will refuse to believe that the statistics apply to them.

This can be seen as a ‘coping mechanism’ that allows us to continue even in the face of overwhelming odds or the likelihood of a negative outcome. Without such coping mechanisms we would be much more likely to retreat into a state of ‘learned helplessness’ wherein we’d cease trying to have any positive impact on our circumstances.

So the healthiest position is to maintain a balance of optimism and pessimism, but to still favor just a little unrealistic optimism even in the face of severe odds. For those who struggle with a ‘rainy brain’ though (or impulsivity and recklessness), an increasing understanding of the mechanisms behind positive and negative thought patterns is coming increasingly close to providing us with the tools to model our thought patterns.

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