Is it good to be a pessimist?
I’m a pessimist. I view the glass as half-empty. I rain on people’s parades. Tell me an idea, and I’ll find all the problems with it. Some (like my past therapists) might refer to this style of thinking as “cognitive distortions.” But what do they know, right?
My negative views probably don’t make me all that fun to be around sometimes, but I’d argue they made me a pretty good scientist back in the day. On the search for scientific truth, it was usually better to err on the side of caution. Don’t assume your experiment will work the first time you try it. Don’t even assume it’ll work the second time you try it. Don’t jump to any hasty conclusions. Always double-check your numbers, always run the statistics to make sure your numbers back up your claims.
I’d call this a mindset of defensive pessimism. If you can envision failure, then you can figure out what you need to do to avoid that failure. It’s like my father always says: hope for the best, plan for the worst.
However, spending too much time in this frame of mind has its obvious downsides. At best, it makes me a killjoy. At worst, some (like my past therapists) might refer to it as “clinical depression.” But what do they know, right?
So, I’ve found myself grappling with this tension between optimism and pessimism, the positives and the negatives. Where should the balance point be? How pessimistic can I be before I fall into a state of nihilistic paralysis? Likewise, how optimistic can I be before I reach a state of reckless self-delusion?
A Christmas Carol-style intervention
As I pondered these questions toward the end of 2019, I joked to some friends that it’d be really helpful if I had some divine force appear and tell me what to do — like in A Christmas Carol. You know the story: grumpy old Scrooge gets visited by three spirits, they show him the error of his stingy ways, he gets convinced to turn his life around, everyone’s happy (and if you don’t know the story, it’s been adapted countless times, and Project Gutenberg has a free ebook of the original Dickens novella).
I figured I’m grappling with a sort of crisis of character, so why can’t I get a supernatural assist? Well, in a metaphorical sense, I got my wish.
In the three weekends before Christmas, I found myself locked in a series of intense arguments that cropped up during some social gatherings I attended. Without getting too deep in the weeds, here were the topics we debated:
- The first was on the merits of microtargeted advertising, particularly on social media.
- The second was on reparations for slavery, or whether/how American society can repay the descendants of freed slaves.
- The third was on how strictly we should fortify and police the US/Mexico border.
Now, political debates at holiday functions are a dime a dozen these days. But these particular arguments struck me with both their vitriol and their seeming futility. People got really angry (including me), and it all felt really pointless in the end. No one was persuaded, no one was convinced of anything — so why did we have the conversations at all?
Purpose in purposeless arguing
After throwing my hands up in frustration at the third of these arguments, I presented this question to my cousin and my grandfather, who were observing on the sidelines. To my surprise, they didn’t exactly share in my exasperation.
My cousin, trained in the dark arts of political science, pointed out that engaging in arguments like these has purpose that goes well beyond simply persuading one’s interlocutor. First, it ensures that all viewpoints are heard, preventing the conversation from being steered by the loudest voice in the room. Second, it can change the minds of observers of the conversation who are not participating in it directly. And third, it allows one test how well their views stand up to scrutiny, which helps refine one’s own position.
My grandfather, trained in the dark arts of… well, life experience… had a much simpler message: there’s always a chance. There’s always that slim chance that maybe what you say can change someone’s mind. It might not change their entire position, and it might not happen over the course of a single conversation, but it may have some effect.
I initially had my reservations about what they said. However, after taking some time to reflect on it, I see the value in their perspectives.
Motivation = Expectancy X Value
In a way, the decision of whether or not to engage in a “pointless” debate is a question of motivation: do I do the thing or not? I’ve grappled with low motivation a great deal in the past couple of years, so I’m quite familiar with the feeling. In my recent attempts to overcome it, I perused some of the literature on the psychology of motivation, and found one theory that fits this situation quite well.
The expectancy-value theory states that one’s motivation to do something is dependent upon two factors:
- Expectancy of success: how likely do you think success is?
- Value of the task: how worthwhile do you feel the task is?
If you feel like you have a good chance of succeeding at a task, and you feel like the task is valuable to you, then you’ll be motivated to do it. Conversely, if you feel like success is too far out of your reach, or you feel like the task isn’t worth anything to you, then your motivation will be much lower.
These two factors have various layers of nuance to them as well. For example, expectancy depends on your assessment of your innate ability, how hard you think you’ll try, how much luck is involved, and a host of other issues. Likewise, the value of a task is tied to how worthwhile success itself is, how worthwhile the activities on the road to success are, and so on.
The important thing to note is how subjective all of this is — that is, expectancy and value are largely derived from one’s opinions, rather than objective facts. Do you think expectancy is high? Do you think value is high? This suggests that if you tweak your perceptions of things, you can change your motivation.
Take these “pointless” arguments as an example. All I cared about was changing the other person’s mind, but that felt impossible, which made the whole endeavor seem worthless. In other words, I rated the expectancy of success as zero, and the value of the task as zero.
However, this isn’t all set in stone. If I took my grandfather’s advice, I would rate my expectancy higher than zero (maybe not much higher, but still). And if I took my cousin’s advice, I would see value that went beyond just changing the other person’s mind.
Thus, there is a way of framing things that would keep me in the conversation and keep me from walking away from it. But here’s the catch: it takes effort. One can’t simply flip a switch on motivation. It requires mindfulness: being aware of when one is in a negative state of mind so they can take steps to get out of it. It also requires emotional management: being able to shift mindsets in the heat of the moment, even if tensions are high.
And importantly, it requires optimism: being committed to seeking out and adopting a more positive frame of mind.
Is it good to be an optimist?
What I learned from these Christmas “ghosts” is that an optimistic mindset has its benefits. It can help me see greater value in things, and reinforce my persistence in the face of adversity. Does that mean I should always strive for optimism? Perhaps it varies from task to task. I can’t say for sure how much my life would have been improved had I lengthened those political debates. Then again, maybe that’s just my pessimism talking. There are benefits, but only if I make an effort to find them.
In the end, my pessimistic mindset saved me from feeling like I wasted my time. But the more I lean toward pessimism, the less motivated I’ll be. And if that happens, well, life will start to pass me by.
So as the new year unfolds, I’m challenging myself to seek out more of the positives, even if they’re not immediately apparent. Will it pay off in any way? Who knows? For now, I’ll take my chances.
Some related links for further consideration
- “Defensive Pessimism,” a brief write-up on the concept and how it contrasts with dispositional pessimism
- Full text of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens on Project Gutenberg
- “Expectancy-Value Theory of Achievement Motivation” (Wigfield and Eccles, 2000), an academic article on the theory
- “Expectancy-Value Theory,” a YouTube video on the theory by Dr. Brett D. Jones from Virginia Tech