Imagine you divided everyone in the world into two psychological groups. You put all the optimists on one side and all the pessimists on the other (let’s leave the realists aside for now).

Amongst the optimists the conversation would all be about fantastic plans for the future and how things can only get better.

Meanwhile the pessimists are having what might seem to the optimists like a depressing discussion. Far from working out how to make their dreams come true, they’re worrying about all the things that might go wrong. They’re worried that even the things they have will be taken away from them by some cruel twist of fate.

To the optimists, the pessimists seem too down on everything, always just a little too keen to pour cold water on any exciting plans.

To the pessimists, though, the optimists are out of touch with reality. Can’t they see what a nasty, cruel and accident-prone world we live in? They are deluding themselves!

Which is better?

Over the years psychologists have examined many aspects of pessimism and optimism. They’ve wondered whether there are more optimists or pessimists. And they’ve tried to find out which approach is ‘better’. Naturally both camps are fascinated to see which way this one goes.

In fact there’s good news for all. There are some advantages to optimism like it seems to make people feel better about life. But there are also advantages for pessimism in that thinking the worst helps some pessimists cope better with the world.

But we should be less concerned with which is ‘better’ or which camp is larger and more interested in why people see the world in such different ways in the first place.

After all, when an extreme optimist talks to an extreme pessimist, it’s like they come from two completely different worlds. How do people come to be polarized in this way?

What’s my motivation?

A clue comes from a new line of research into how both pessimists and optimists use their differing views of the world to motivate themselves.

We all know how difficult it is to predict what’s going to happen in the future. Life is always throwing us curveballs and most of us accept that our plans often don’t work out. It’s not that we’re doing anything wrong, just that life is unpredictable.

To cope with this unpredictability some of us choose to think optimistically because it helps motivate us to try, try again. For others a pessimistic mindset performs the same function. By thinking about what might go wrong it helps protect us against when things do go wrong.

In both cases what the optimistic and pessimistic standpoints are doing is working in service of motivation. Each provides a protective buffer against what Shakespeare called “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”.

Insight from anagrams

Evidence for this connection between motivation and optimism or pessimism was found in a new study by Abigail Hazlett and colleagues (Hazlett et al., 2011), published in Social Cognition.

In two initial studies optimists were found to have a ‘promotion focus’. In other words they preferred to think about how they could advance and grow. Pessimists, meanwhile, were more preoccupied with security and safety.

This suggested a connection with motivation, but we need a true experiment for stronger evidence. So, in their third study they had participants trying to solve anagrams. However they were split into two groups. While doing the anagrams half were encouraged to think optimistic thoughts and half pessimistic thoughts.

The researchers also measured participants’ natural tendencies towards either optimism or pessimism. This meant that some people would be using their preferred strategy and others would be forced to think against the grain.

What the results showed was that pessimists performed better when thinking in negative ways. At the same time optimists were more engaged with their task when they were thinking positive thoughts.

It also turned out that people’s performance depended on how persistent they were at trying to crack the anagrams. It seems that when the optimists were using their preferred positive thinking strategy, they were more persistent. And the same went for the pessimists, who were most successful when thinking negative thoughts.

Different strokes

What’s emerging, from studies like this, is that both optimism and pessimism have important roles to play in people’s lives.

Being optimistic allows people to pursue their goals in a positive way: to dream a bigger and better dream, which they can work their way towards. Optimists also seem to respond better to positive feedback, and part of being optimistic may be generating this feedback for themselves, i.e. thinking positive thoughts.

On the other hand being pessimistic may help people reduce their natural anxiety and to perform better. Also, pessimists seem to respond better to negative feedback. They like to hear what the problems were, so they can correct them. Again, part of why pessimists generate these sorts of negative thoughts is that it helps them perform better.

So it’s different strokes for different folks. Optimism and pessimism aren’t just accidents; this evidence suggests they are two different, but effective, strategies of coping with a complex and unpredictable world.