As news approaches, even optimists brace for the worst

Success is defined by our choices decisionsBy Christian Jarrett

Psychologists studying how our expectations change over time have observed that our hopes tend to dip the nearer we get to receiving some feedback, be that an exam result, sports score or health test outcome. They call this “bracing” and there’s evidence we do it more in some situations than others, for example the more severe the potential outcome and the more personally relevant, the more we brace. But do some of us brace more than others, and specifically, do optimists brace as much as pessimists? According to a series of nine studies published recently in the Journal of Personality, the answer is yes.

All of Kate Sweeny’s and Angelica Falkenstein’s studies involved tests for signs of bracing and tests of either dispositional optimism (measured by agreement with statements like “In uncertain times, I usually expect the best”) and/or pessimism (measured by agreement with statements like “I spend lots of time imagining what could go wrong”).

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.

Across the studies, even though optimists had higher expectations overall, they showed just as much bracing as pessimists. It remains to be seen whether these results will generalise to non-student samples. And there must be doubts over the realism of the studies that compared students’ predictions in a no-feedback versus imminent feedback context.

Nonetheless, Sweeny and Falkenstein said it makes sense that bracing seems to be such a common strategy, even among optimists. Although optimism as an enduring trait has known benefits for our health and wellbeing – for instance, optimists tend to be happier and enjoy better health – Sweeny and Falkenstein pointed out that “well-timed pessimism” is also advantageous:  “after all, if people expect the worst, they can hardly be unpleasantly surprised and it causes little or no distress if embraced only in the final moments before feedback.” They added, “pessimism at the moment of truth also minimizes the likelihood of looking foolish if things do not turn out as hoped, particularly if people express their newfound pessimism to others.”

This is not to say there ares no differences between individuals in their tendency to brace. For example, prior work has suggested that people with higher self-esteem are less likely to brace, perhaps because they are less worried about looking foolish when outcomes don’t match their expectations.

Even Optimists Get the Blues: Interindividual Consistency in the Tendency to Brace for the Worst

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest