Do you always have to look on the bright side?
Introducing Defensive Pessimism
Messages about the benefits of optimism and the negative sequelae of pessimism are pervasive throughout the popular media as well as the empirical psychology literature. Moreover, as teammates, coaches, educators, and therapists we are often encouraged to promote optimism. In the field of sports psychology, the literature is defined by messages advocating positive self-talk and flawless imagery. It is understandable how the supporters of positive psychology can easily maintain the message that “optimism is good” and “pessimism is bad.” Current research suggests, however, that this may not always be the case for all people at all times, and that for some individuals, pessimism serves not only a self-preserving role but also a problem-solving strategy (Norem & Chang, 2002). (See our blog on "negative thinking" )
Contemporary research in the field of explanatory style, that is, the study of the way people explain the events in their lives, suggests that there are potential benefits and costs of both positive and negative thinking, and that for certain individuals forcing an optimistic style could be detrimental to performance (Norem & Illingworth, 2004). In the sports psychology literature that is available to athletes, there is an over-emphasis on the benefits of optimism and under-emphasis of potential costs. Virtually all performance enhancement techniques combine ingredients of focusing on the task at hand, positive visualization, and affirmative self-talk. Are these techniques warranted for all individuals at all times?
"For certain individuals forcing an optimistic style could be detrimental to performance"- Dr.Sam
Research suggests that we might consider the costs and benefits of two contradicting explanatory styles: Strategic optimism and defensive pessimism (Norem & Illingworth, 1993). Strategic optimists avoid thinking about the task at hand and maintain a positive mood; defensive pessimists ruminate over possible negative outcomes and often are in a bad mood before performance.
Some research suggests that for strategic optimists, forcing them to consider failure results in increased anxiety (Sanna, 1998). Conversely, for defensive pessimists, research suggests that if mood is made positive and they are not allowed to consider failure, they show increased anxiety (Norem & Cantor, 1986; Norem & Illingworth, 1993; 2004; Sanna, 1998). While mood may differentially impact performance based on individual differences in explanatory style, most research suggests that facilitating or impeding the “thinking through” component of the style is even more salient in terms of the impact on performance. There is limited research, however, regarding individual differences in explanatory style and performance, and there is no published research using athletes that considers the interaction between performance-enhancement technique and explanatory style. In an attempt to help athletes achieve peak performance states are sports psychologists actually performing a disservice to some by insisting that they “focus and stay positive?”
"In an attempt to help athletes achieve peak performance states are sports psychologists actually performing a disservice to some by insisting that they “focus and stay positive?”"
My research attempted to provide further evidence for the constructs of defensive pessimism and strategic optimism in athletes, and explored whether differences in explanatory style and performance enhancement techniques can predict who will perform better in sample of athletes. My study sought to apply Norem’s theory of defensive pessimism and strategic optimism to the athletic performance domain. The performances of defensive pessimists and strategic optimists were compared across three imagery conditions: imagining perfect performance, imagining the possibility of failure, and relaxation/distraction. Results add to the body of literature suggesting that some people (defensive pessimists) are individuals who are generally higher in anxiety, lower in confidence, and perform better if they are allowed to consider negative outcomes.
- Some people are eternal optimists. They think about performing perfectly and they do.
- Some people are true pessimists. They think they will fail and they do. They do not believe they can succeed and therefore they do not work very hard at it.
- Some people are a bundle of nerves and really think they are not going to perform as well as they can (and they get really annoyed whey told “just look on the bright side” or “you’ll do great!”) but they do not fail and they certainly do not give up.
- Some people do not like to think at all before they perform…and they are not slackers (though they often get a bad rap). They are just managing their anxiety.
None of these styles is necessarily better than the other. Increasing self-awareness (ie.mindfulness) about what works for you (and this could vary across situations) is the most important thing. At times you may go against the grain….but greatness rarely comes without controversy!
When preparing for a major competition, know what works for you, and let that experience guide you. And dont be surprised if you are typically an optimistic person but your "performance self" is pessimistic. This may be do to a host of biopsychosocial reasons that are triggered by performance situations In sum, when figuring out what works for you, it is okay to avoid one-size-fits-all techniques and listen to your gut!