Published online 3 February 2006 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news060130-13


Is it best to expect the worst?

Psychologists test long-held theory of emotional cushioning.

That failing feeling: students who expect to do poorly tend to be more miserable than those who expect great things, even when both flunk.That failing feeling: students who expect to do poorly tend to be more miserable than those who expect great things, even when both flunk.© Punchstock

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."

Sunny side up

The study, published in Cognition and Emotion1, suggests that a person's reaction to disappointment or failure is determined mainly by their general outlook on life. Those who expect to succeed tend to have a sunnier stance all round, the researchers say. If they fall short of their goals, they are likely to look on the bright side and still think they have done reasonably well.

These people, who see the world through rose-tinted spectacles, also tend to deny responsibility for their poor performance. Marshall and Brown showed this in a second part of the study, in which students were also asked whether they felt their test performance was a reflection of their ability. The 'rose-tinted' group who did badly in the test tended to believe that it was not.

Conversely, people who have low expectations tend to have a glum take on life and may be less mentally equipped to deal with disappointment. If they don't make the grade, they take it to heart and tend to blame themselves.

It may be difficult for a person to cushion the blow of failure by trying to brighten their natural temperament, Brown says. Based on his earlier research, he says that the best way a person can deal with a setback is by writing it off as unimportant. "People need to be strong enough to learn that failure is not bad," he says.

The dark side


At least in some cases, negative thinking could still work to a person's advantage.

Anticipating failure at a forthcoming mathematics test or public talk, for example, is thought to help some anxious people motivate themselves to study harder and avert their dismal prophesy. Psychologists call such individuals 'defensive pessimists'.

Conversely, there could also be detrimental consequences to perpetually expecting the best, says Julie Norem of Wellesley College, Massachusetts, who studies the psychological strategies people use to pursue goals. Those who continually brush off their failures at the office might be overlooking the larger picture - such as the fact that they are about to be fired.

Sadly, this means there is no simple advice about whether we ought to expect the worst. This study "is part of a very large puzzle", Norem says.

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  • References

    1. Marshall M. A& Brown J. D. . Cognition & Emotion, 20 . 43 - 63 (2006).