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Defensive pessimism is a strategy used by anxious people to help them manage their anxiety so they can work productively. Defensive pessimists lower their expectations to help prepare themselves for the worst. Then, they mentally play through all the bad things that might happen. Though it sounds as if it might be depressing, defensive pessimism actually helps anxious people focus away from their emotions so that they can plan and act effectively.

Strategic optimism is typically used by people who aren't anxious. Individuals using this strategy set high expectations, and then actively avoid thinking much about what might happen.

Both strategic optimists and defensive pessimists typically do quite well, but both groups are also vulnerable to situations that don't accommodate their strategies. My experimental research shows that if defensive pessimists try to raise their expectations, or avoid playing through a worst-case analysis, their anxiety increases and their performance suffers. If strategic optimists set lower expectations or play through possible outcomes, their anxiety increases and their performance decreases.

People may use different strategies in different situations, and not everyone is either a defensive pessimist or a strategic optimist.

Defensive Pessimism Questionnaire

Think of a situation where you want to do your best. It may be related to work, to your social life, or to any of your goals. When you answer the following questions, please think about how you prepare for that kind of situation. Rate how true each statement is for you.

Not at all true of me 1---2---3---4---5---6---7 Very true of me
1. I often start out expecting the worst, even though I will probably do OK.
2. I worry about how things will turn out.
3. I carefully consider all possible outcomes.
4. I often worry that I won't be able to carry through my intentions.
5. I spend lots of time imagining what could go wrong.
6. I imagine how I would feel if things went badly.
7. I try to picture how I could fix things if something went wrong.
8. I'm careful not to become overconfident in these situations.
9. I spend a lot of time planning when one of these situations is coming up.
10. I imagine how I would feel if things went well.
11. In these situations, sometimes I worry more about looking like a fool than doing really well.
12. Considering what can go wrong helps me to prepare.