It's Not Just You: Literally Everyone Expects the Worst, Study Says

According to new research, optimists and pessimists alike brace for the worst while waiting for news.

by Kimberly Lawson
Dec 21 2016, 7:58pm

Photo by Briana Morrison via Stocksy

As one of the shittiest years in recent memory comes to an end, 2017 isn't looking much better. We've got a president-elect who appears hell-bent on rolling back reproductive rights and civil rights; racists are feeling emboldened, so hate crimes are on the rise; and we've already passed the tipping point for atmospheric carbon levels.

The good news is that we're in this together. A new study published in the Journal of Personality this week reveals that optimists and pessimists alike brace themselves for the worst when anticipating news.

Read more: Who You Hate Depends on How Smart You Are, Study Finds

The tendency to "[abandon] optimism at the end of a waiting period is both prevalent and robust," researchers out of the University of California, Riverside, write. Not only is well-timed pessimism "an effective antidote to disappointment," but it also "minimizes the likelihood of looking foolish if things do not turn out as hoped."

Psychology professor Kate Sweeny and her team executed nine different studies in the lab and in the field. In each experiment, researchers measured participants' natural tendency to be optimistic or pessimistic, and then assessed how they thought they'd performed as they awaited results. Some of the study scenarios included California law graduates anticipating if they passed their bar exam; students predicting how well they did on an intelligence test; and participants estimating how attractive they thought others had rated them.

Ultimately, they found that none of the studies yielded a significant statistical difference between optimists and pessimists when it comes to the tendency to brace for the worst while waiting for news. "Bracing for the worst is normal—nearly universal—and probably good for us when we time it right," says Sweeny, lead author on the study.

She says that she and her team were interested in learning more about how people with different dispositions deal with uncertainty. "Our findings have two potential benefits beyond simply generating knowledge," she says. "First, we suspect that these findings may be reassuring to people who find themselves plagued with worst-case scenario thinking as they face a moment of truth. In short, we're all in good company in those moments. Second, the fact that even ardent optimists brace for the worst suggests that bracing is an adaptive strategy for managing our emotional reactions to uncertainty and to the news we ultimately receive. If it didn't work, people likely wouldn't do it so consistently."

Because the study was coincidentally published at the end of such a tumultuous year, we asked Sweeny if she had any suggestions for how to handle the uncertainty of 2017. She says that "timing is everything when it comes to bracing for the worst."

"Bracing is really custom-made to buffer us from the hit of unexpected bad news," she continues. "If you brace too much for too long, it can really get you down, but bracing in the final moments before your fate is revealed seems to be quite adaptive."

But for those who are fearful what the New Year will bring, there's no moment of truth, Sweeny says. "Our fate will be revealed slowly over months and even years. I suspect that the healthiest approach is a large dose of cautious optimism, tempered by an awareness of worst-case scenarios."