Optimists and Pessimists Prepare for Bad News Exactly the Same Way

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If nothing bugs you quite like perma-cheeriness, here’s something you’ll probably enjoy: According to a study recently published in the Journal of Personality, there inevitably comes a point where a self-declared optimist’s sunny outlook will start to crumble — the closer they get to receiving a piece of potentially bad news, the more they begin to resemble a pessimist.

As Christian Jarrett wrote at BPS Research Digest, lowering your expectations right before the event in question is called “bracing,” and it’s something we tend to do more when the news we’re about to hear affects us directly, and that applies no matter who you are. But this study, delightfully titled “Even Optimists Get the Blues,” found that, somewhat counterintuitively, optimists and pessimists brace in equal measure.

The study comprised nine different experiments, all designed to test how people reacted to the potential of bad news. Jarrett explained:

Two of the most compelling studies involved law students, who were asked to predict their performance on an upcoming bar exam, and then to predict their results one month and one day before the results were due in. Other studies involved psychology undergrads who were asked to forecast how well they thought they’d done on an intelligence test, a maths test, or how attractive they would be rated by other students. Crucially, sometimes they were asked to make these predictions knowing that their actual performance or attractiveness feedback would be given to them imminently (a set-up designed to induce bracing), while other times they were told their results would never be made available.

In each experiment, the authors also asked their participants to fill out a series of survey questions to determine where they fell on the spectrum from optimism to pessimism. Even though (as you might expect) the more optimistic volunteers were more likely to predict that the event in question would go their way, they also braced for it just as much as their less hopeful counterparts. Even a person who seems like they look on the bright side of everything, in other words, doesn’t look on the bright side of everything all the time — sooner or later, even if it’s temporary, the rosy tint will begin to fade.

Optimists and Pessimists Prepare for Bad News the Same Way