Is pessimism better than optimism?

Everybody has a different outlook or perspective on almost everything. Some people like to believe the good side of events while some are inclined to do the exact opposite. Then the question arises of who is right? Who is better? Is there a difference when we look at the brains of these two different standpoints? Well, turns out that indeed there are differences in brain activity of being one versus the other.

Studies have shown that the amount of belief we have in ourselves to carry out a task directly affects the neural effort put forth. This then affects the limitations on how much your brain plans out the needed physical movement to perform the task. An experiment was run and subjects were told that if they completed the task correctly they would earn money and if they failed they would lose whatever money they had gained. Each was informed of this before beginning. They were given one second to memorize a certain sequence, 15 seconds to plan, and 10 to complete. Brain activity was scanned during the experiments and after they were finished they were individually asked how well they did.

Two very interesting conclusions were made from the experiment. Firstly, the optimists who thought they did very well, did very poorly and vice versa for the pessimists. Secondly, the optimists were found to have the most brain activity for success while the pessimists were found to have the most brain activity for the avoidance of failure. This shows the significance of how much the person takes into account how well he or she is going to do and the stakes or consequences of success or failure. This is also a key factor in the difference between the two and shows what each perspective focuses on.

Half full vs Half empty (c) Mdf, CC BY-SA 3.0

Which is better?

So which is better? Well, there are pros and cons to either one. Let us look at the optimist’s point of view. The optimists are less likely to be stressed and over time your brain gets used to that lifestyle. That’s good for everyday tasks but the problem lies with when you need your survival instincts. Your brain is so tuned to being relaxed and stressed-free that when it actually comes time to use those survival instincts, it is making your brain essentially get rid of what has been a lifestyle for many years. A positive about optimism is that they see the bigger picture and are very social and aren’t worried about the consequences of any action they take.

The pessimists, however, are worried about exactly just that. They stress the consequences so they don’t even start the action. If they decide that even if there’s a 10% chance that something might go bad, they indulge themselves in that ten percent making it seem as though it is the only option. A positive to pessimism, however, is that they are more logical thinkers. They are more realistic with their choices and decisions.

None is really any better than the other, they are just different perspectives. Each has its own benefits and drawbacks and that really isn’t a problem. Some people are just wired to see the glass half full and some see it as half empty.

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