Pessimism presented as a psychological flaw.

One of the messages that popular culture blares at us is: become an optimist, change your outlook and live longer, be positive not negative! And we know that the mainstream media does not bother printing or airing anything it doesn’t like, so when such a message is propagated so widely, it’s because it serves an important purpose.

Pessimism is framed as a psychological flaw, a speed bump to happiness, in the same category as low self-esteem, body image problems, or hoarding. Because of this, we get all sorts of unqualified, ignorant writers playing psychiatrists to a gullible population. Quack advice ranges from changing your facial expressions, visualization techniques, ostracizing other pessimists, to outright thought-stopping. No doubt people follow this advice; hopefully none of them have fucked their minds up with such nonsense.

There is a cruel stereotype that people with psychological issues should just “get over it.” In general, there is a belief that our feelings are entirely contingent on our state of mind, and that we just need to change our mind to make ourselves feel better:

That’s when I learned that you don’t have to be saddled for life with the mental attitudes you adopted in early childhood. All of us are free to change our minds, and as we change our minds, our experiences will also change.
Attitudes of Gratitude, M.J. Ryan, p26

It is difficult to distinguish extreme forms of optimism from delusion, because to maintain optimism requires an active rejection of the facts. Of course, this does not last forever, because our capacity to witness and ignore contrary evidence eventually translates into cognitive dissonance. I quoted one of these relapsing optimists in the entry I just linked:

Sometimes I lose my Life Lie. Reality sets in and it’s incredibly depressing. I feel my smallness, weakness, and the lack of control I have over my life. It’s almost unbearable. Fortunately, I always come up with a new Life Lie.

This brings us to the topic of whether optimism is hard-wired or not. Pessimists tend to believe it is, that we’ve been evolutionarily wired to only see the good side of life, because after all depression and suicide are not good “adaptations.” This would explain why it dominates our society today.

However, I think this is at least somewhat mistaken. It is true that optimism dominates in the present, but this has not always been the case. As Barbara Ehrenreich writes in her wonderful book Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America, the modern positive thinking movement, then called the New Thought movement (not to be confused with the New Age movement, which is a descendant), started in the 1860s as a reaction to Calvinism’s depressing, ghoulish version of Christianity. If optimism was hardwired, it would be hard to explain the fact that Calvinism dominated the American religious landscape for such a long time.

On the other hand, it does seem that some tendency to maintain optimism is hardcoded, at least for some people, although these results could be equally explained by disbelief. However, the fact remains that there is a vast gulf between how an optimist and a pessimist sees the world, which estnihil calls the Pessimist Gap. It could be that some form of cognitive bias separates those who see it from those who don’t.

This, incidentally, demonstrates that we are wrong in thinking that natalists who refuse to acknowledge the risks we impose on new lives are acting disingenuously. If this study is correct, they actually cannot understand the scope of these risks, and literally believe that their children are not subject to the same level of risk. This means that debating natalists on this issue may be pretty useless, or at least that we cannot hope to convince natalists not to have children with statistical facts.

Another piece of evidence is the fact that it seems to take people a great deal of reinforcement to maintain optimism in the face of reality, and that people are prone to “lose faith,” much like actual religious faith. If optimism is a natural feature of the brain, then why does it need to be maintained so much?

In the study I linked, 80% of people were classified as optimists. This may explain all of this: 80% of people go along with the program, and 20% either struggle to remain optimists, resulting in relapses and depression, or simply don’t try.

I said there must be a good reason why optimism is relentlessly pushed by the mainstream media. This reason is exemplified by the inane slogan “wag more bark less”; the more one is busy self-censoring all criticism out of one’s head, the less one is likely to criticize, including criticizing the mainstream narratives. All forms of thought-stopping prevent change.

Optimism means believing we live in a benevolent society and that all of us can succeed if we just want it hard enough. It is strongly linked with delusional beliefs about society itself: that our society is egalitarian, that our society is fair, that anyone can grow up to become anything, At the foundation of this pile of nonsense is the belief in free will, that we can “choose our own reality.” In that sense, The Secret and other New Age hackjobs are merely extreme forms of optimism.

Like most bullies, the New Age hackjobs and unqualified optimism peddlers flaunt their victimhood complex, and whine that we are surrounded by pessimism. As Ehrenreich points out, optimism has actually become so prevalent that it is sinking our society. She describes how optimism wreaks havoc on entire economies and positive-thinking dogma is taking over Christianity. In conclusion, she says:

In our daily lives, too, all of us, no matter how determinedly upbeat, rely on what psychologist Julie Norem calls “defensive pessimism” to get through the day. Not only pilots need to envision the worst; so does the driver of a car. Should you assume, positively, that no one is going to cut in front of you or, more negatively, be prepared to brake? Most of us would choose a physician who is willing to investigate the most dire possibilities rather than one who is known to settle quickly on an optimistic diagnosis. In matters of the heart as well, a certain level of negativity and suspicion is universally recommended…

Even some of the most positive-thinking evangelical pastors have recently acknowledged the threat of global warming. The notion that the world’s supply of oil may have peaked is no longer the province of a few environmentally minded kooks; “doomsters” are gaining respectability. Everywhere we look, the forests are falling, the deserts are advancing, the supply of animal species is declining. The seas are rising and there are fewer and fewer fish in them to eat.

It goes on and on, but you get the point. Optimism is a clear and present danger to humanity’s survival, because it strongly distorts the evaluation of risk and strongly downplays institutional flaws (both because you’re not supposed to think about them and because you’re supposed to believe everything good or bad is the individual’s fault).

Ordinary people, what we call “sane” in our society, are really shitty analysts. Really, really shitty analysts. Their bias to the upside is tiresome, predictable and makes them wrong, over and over and over again. They don’t know what real threats are, they constantly are confused about what is really dangerous. They think stranger pedophiles are a big danger to their kids, while it’s their family members or their own driving. They think terrorism is dangerous, when almost no one dies from it, as opposed to crossing the street or eating too many Big Macs. They fear “Osama” when the men who are most likely to cause their death or impoverishment have names like Bush, Paulson, Geithner, Obama and so on…

Of course optimism is wonderfully adaptive as long as optimists aren’t your leaders or analysts, and don’t run your nuclear power plants, or plan your economies, or make any decisions about anything which if it goes wrong can go catastrophically wrong. Optimists are happier, they live longer, they’re healthier, they “get up and go”, blah, blah, blah. Optimism is good for optimists and hey, they’re generally more pleasant to be around, too. There are time periods when they’re even right a lot (say during the 50s). But basically, they’re blind. One imagines conversations between cows.

On the other hand, there is evidence that optimism is good for one’s health, although it’s unclear whether one is more likely to be an optimist when one is healthy, or whether optimism makes one more likely to adopt healthy behaviors. The former does not contradict pessimism: obviously it’s easier for people to ignore the harms of life if they are not subject to them.

But even if optimism was linked to better health, one should not therefore consider pessimism as a psychological problem. People living in rural areas used to live longer, now city-dwellers live longer; neither fact is a convincing argument for calling people living in cities or rural areas psychologically damaged.

6 thoughts on “Pessimism presented as a psychological flaw.

  1. anyasok April 27, 2013 at 05:29

    Excellent entry! Optimism pisses me off to no end, especially when it concerns imparting to the kids and hauling off all the risks and responsibility on their shoulders without their consent.

    The thing that pisses me off about the optimists is that they’re so self-centered, compliant, complacent and ignorant that it borders on insanity. They ignore EVERYTHING but their immediate emotional status.

    Fucking pathetic.

  2. Brian L March 8, 2015 at 09:28

    I don’t think we are hard-wired for optimism. But I do believe we are hard-wired for hope. The distinction seems subtle, but is quite huge. We base optimism ON hope, and our deepest wishes.

    • Francois Tremblay March 8, 2015 at 16:54

      I don’t know about that. I think many people are optimists by reflex even when they have no hope.

      • Brian L March 9, 2015 at 00:00

        I believe that hope is deeper rooted than optimism or pessimism. It’s, IMO, an automatic reaction to something bad or surprising happening, or just happened. It’s more ‘primal’.

        Example… I’m at the dentist. I take reasonable care of my teeth. The dentist, whom I am basically at the mercy of, looks in and tells me that he has to drill that cavity, no two ways about it. My brain goes haywire, all these thoughts firing in my head, all at once…. Can I afford this? I hope so! Will there be pain? I hope not! What happens if he fucks up? I hope he won’t! How long will this take? I hope not long! Do I have a positive or negative bias as these unknowns are flaming in my head, uncontrollably? No. These are automatic thoughts that I haven’t yet been able to process through my bias, positive or negative. Now, being a pessimist, I will then bracee myself for the worse case. But the hope will always be that I’m proven wrong by the experience.

        Where I may be wrong is whether the thought process (optimism/pessimism) is deeper, being a process, than the automatic thought, that which is processed. But I believe that the thought is deeper, and held in common by all. We all hope. Especially in an emergency. But whether we believe that hope to hold weight or not, is then weighed by our bias.

        Being a pessimist by reflex, I can still say I’m hopeful of many things, though I doubt they will come to pass. But I know that I have this in common with any optimist or pessimist… hope, that is. And, if I may, I think your response would be best presented thusly:

        “I think many people are optimists by ‘leaning’, even when they have no ‘justification’ for thinking thus”.

        Now thats a sentence I can get behind. They have hope, but not the justification for believing it will come to pass.

        Anyways, if I’m wrong, I ‘hope’ explained myself better lol ;)

        Cheers Francois.

        • Brian L March 9, 2015 at 01:56

          Anyways, Im not debating your premise, which I do agree with. I was just differentiating between hope and optimism, and saying, poorly I suppose, that hope crosses these negative and positive bias boundaries, and thus is more universal. Thus we may be ‘hard-coded’ for hope.

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