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The Psychology of Optimism and Pessimism

By: Sai Srihaas Potu

Our survival and wellness require a balance between optimism and pessimism. Undue pessimism makes life miserable; however, excessive optimism can lead to dangerously risky behaviors. Optimism and pessimism are distinct modes of thinking that are best conceptualized as a continuum with many degrees of positivity and negativity. Some people, more than others, have a consistent tendency to think, feel and behave, regarding most aspects of their lives, in a way that is unbalanced and inclined toward one of the extremes on the optimism-pessimism continuum.

In recent years, researchers have been able to determine how these certain beliefs affect certain parts of the brain and where they tend to originate from. High self-esteem, a cheerful attitude that tends to look at the positive aspects of a given situation, as well as an optimistic belief in a bright future are associated with physiological activity in the left-hemisphere. In contrast, a gloomy viewpoint, an inclination to focus on the negative part and exaggerate its significance, low self-esteem as well as a pessimistic view on what the future holds is interlinked with neurophysiological processes in the right-hemisphere.

Subsequently, scientists have discovered that these beliefs affect the performance of the posterior parietal cortex in our brain. Optimistic brains and pessimistic brains were compared in a brain-imaging study of the posterior parietal cortex, where it is believed sensory stimuli are transformed into movement plans. The experiments show that the posterior parietal cortex performance can be affected by a belief of success or failure in tasks.

Our belief as to whether we will likely succeed or fail at a given task and the consequences of winning or losing directly affects the levels of neural effort put forth in movement-planning circuits in the human cortex, according to a new brain-imaging study by Dr. Richard A. Anderson.

The subjects received monetary compensation for participating in the experiment, with their earnings tied to their performance. The amount of money that would be gained or lost varied from trial to trial. In one trial, for example, success might net the participant $5, while failure would cause him to lose $1. In another trial, completing the task correctly would earn $1, while failure would cost $5. Alternatively, success and failure might produce an equivalent gain or loss (+$5 versus -$5). The subjects were told the stakes in advance of each trial.

Before receiving their earnings, the subjects reported in a post-test questionnaire how they perceived their performance. Interestingly, those perceptions did not correlate with their actual performance; individuals in the group who believed they had performed well were just as likely to have performed poorly, and vice versa for individuals in the group who believed they had done badly.

Furthermore, the researchers found that the pattern of brain activity in the PPC was linked to how well the subjects believed they had done on the tasks and also by the monetary gain or loss they expected from success or failure. How hard an individual subject’s brain worked at the task was dependent upon their approach. For example, Andersen says, “subjects who are ‘optimists’ and believe they are doing well will put out the most effort and exhibit an increase in activity in their PPC when they expect to earn a larger reward for being successful.” Conversely, those individuals who believe they are doing poorly the pessimists show the most brain activity when there is a higher price for failure.

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. Optimism and pessimism are both necessary for our survival and wellness. 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. Optimism and pessimism aren’t just accidents; they are two different, but effective, strategies of coping with a complex and unpredictable world.


1. Gibson B, Sanbonmatsu DM. Optimism, pessimism, and gambling: the downside of optimism. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 2004.

2. Heinonen K, Räikkönen K, Keltikangas-Järvinen L. Self-esteem in early and late adolescence predicts dispositional optimism-pessimism in adulthood: a 21-year longitudinal study. Personality and Individual Differences: Science Direct. 2005.

3. Richard A., Asha I., Axel L., Igor K. Motor Preparatory Activity in Posterior Parietal Cortex is Modulated by Subjective Absolute Value. PLOS Biology. 2010.


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