Is it best to expect the worst?� Psychologists test long-held theory of emotional cushioning.

Nature has a report about a journal article appearing in Cognition and Emotion that suggests that a person’s reaction to disappointment or failure is determined mainly by their general outlook on life:

Expecting the worst may not make you feel any better when faced with a disappointment, say psychology researchers who have tested the age-old advice.

Most people believe that mentally preparing for the worst outcome in an examination or race will soften the disappointment if we flunk or flop – and heighten the joy if we succeed. But the idea has rarely been put on scientific trial.

Margaret Marshall of Seattle Pacific University and Jonathon Brown of the University of Washington, Seattle, did just that. They first asked more than 80 college students to fill in questionnaires that measured their general emotional outlook on life – whether bright or gloomy. The students then practised a set of moderately difficult word-association puzzles on a computer. Based on this, they rated how well they expected to perform on a second set of such problems.

The team then gave half the students problems that were slightly easier than the first set, while half were given more difficult puzzles. This ensured that the students’ performances would either exceed, or fall short of, their expectations. Afterwards, the subjects filled in a questionnaire to measure their emotional reaction, such as how disappointed or ashamed they felt.

Students who expected to do badly, the researchers found, actually felt worse when they messed up than those who predicted they would do well but similarly botched their test.

This suggests that gloomy expectations could actually exacerbate the wretchedness felt when a person fails. The old advice “doesn’t work”, agrees psychology researcher Thomas Gilovich of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, whose interests include optimism and pessimism. “You’re just making yourself miserable.”