Debunking Preconceived Notions

Do we become more realistic with age? Do pessimists have high IQs? Are Americans more optimistic than the rest?

Every few weeks we will debunk another preconceived notion, providing published scientific data in support.
This week: Isn’t optimism bad, because it just leads to disappointment?

Will great expectations not lead to disappointment when unfulfilled? The belief that having low expectations is good because you are never disappointed when things go wrong and pleasantly surprised when they turn out right is held by many. When tested in the lab, however, this notion turns out to be false.

To the contrary - after failing people who are unrealistically optimistic feel better than people who expected to fail all along.

In a series of studies psychologists Marshall & Brown found that after receiving the results of a test participants with low expectations were indeed surprised when they did well, but they did not feel better than optimistic individuals. Neither did optimistic people who thought they will receive a good grade feel worse when they ended up failing.
So why do optimists feel better than pessimists, even when things do not go their way?
First, positive expectations lead to positive emotions and so most of the time optimists feel better than pessimists (see the chapter on anticipation and dread). Second, people with high expectancies tend to view their performance more positively, even when it does not align with expectancies (“Yes, I failed the test, but I did better than Paul!”). Finally, even after failing an optimists will say “well, next time I will do better!”..
To read Marshall & Brown’s paper click here.