Worst-First Thinking as a Psychological Problem

Hi Readers — This insightful note comes to us from reader/commenter Linda Wightman, who says she is “passionate about ‘small’ in the big things of life:  birth, education, parenting, homemaking, health, church, conservation, farming, business and more.  Except for families, where large is good:  seven Free-Range grandchildren and counting!” She blogs about all this and more at Lift Up Your Hearts! . And meantime, from me, hi from Bulgaria! – L

Dear Free-Range Kids: Hey, worst-first thinking has a psychological category all its own!  Look at this excerpt from Difficult Personalities by Helen McGrath and Hazel Edwards.

Protective pessimism can take many forms, but essentially it is about always assuming the worst will happen and behaving accordingly.  Protective pessimists believe that if something can go wrong, it will.  If something bad can happen, it will happen, and it will happen to them.  Rarely do they expect good outcomes.  So they miss out on the joy of anticipation and dwelling pleasurably on the “nice” aspects, in case the gap between pleasurable “dreams” and the reality is too great. They are not game to tempt fate by hoping, dreaming, or wanting, in case they get caught unprepared by negatives.  They prepare for disillusionment, sadness and tragedy by protecting their projections with pessimism so they will not get caught by future disappointments.  Instead of living up to expectations, they live down, and are often negative in other ways.  Other people don’t like being around pessimistic people because they can be contagious.

Lenore here: The two things that interest me most about this are the way worst-first thinking sucks the joy out of life by infusing each moment with potential doom. And, two, that it’s contagious.

So Is Worst-First thinking the best friend a marketer can have? After all, it makes us ready to buy anything promising safety. But also, by spreading misery, it makes us even more desperate for something that can cheer us up. Maybe something we can buy. And so instead of embracing life, we embrace stuff.

Hmm. – L. 

Don’t give the gift that keeps on giving: Fear.

11 Responses to Worst-First Thinking as a Psychological Problem

  1. Tsu Dho Nimh June 16, 2013 at 11:36 am #

    Protective pessimism can take many forms, but essentially it is about always assuming the worst will happen and behaving accordingly.

    The non-malignant variant of protective pessimism is to figure out the worst that might happen – considering the planned activity – and take some reasonable precautions to avoid or survive the situation.

    I’m not going to give up ski trips. I will make sure people know my route, the car is in good repair, and that we have appropriate survival gear in case we get stuck in a blizzard. We’ve done a lot of rescuing, have not needed to be rescued.

    I like walking in the desert … but at >110 it’s just plain stupid. I avoid it until winter.

  2. Ray June 16, 2013 at 12:40 pm #

    This is a huge part of marketing. It is referred to as FUD – fear, uncertainly and doubt.

  3. Ravana June 16, 2013 at 1:01 pm #

    I have to agree with Tsu Dho Nimh (good one whoever you are).

    Pessimists are not blind optimists, but they are also not the same as the anxious or depressives. Pessimists may say “I’m not going to have fun at that party.” but they still go to the party, put on a good face, and, if they have fun, they are pleasantly surprised, if they don’t they are pleased that they predicted the outcome. Pessimists are therefore quite content with life.

    Blind optimists build up dreams and hopes and are always disappointed because the party can never live up to those dreams. They are the ones who fall into anxiety and depression after the world fails to work the way they believe it should.

    The anxious arrive late and flustered because they spend so much time worrying about what shoes to wear and then think the party was bad because nobody noticed their shoes or maybe because someone did.

    Depressives miss the party because they just can’t get up the energy to bother getting dressed and head out of the house since nothing in life matters.

    Don’t blame pessimists when it is the anxious who are trying to force their fears on others.

  4. Puzzled June 16, 2013 at 1:59 pm #

    I don’t know. I agree with the sentiment and main idea, to be sure, but pathopsychologizing/medicalizing problems of living strikes me as just another type of…wait for it…worst-first thinking.

  5. Papilio June 16, 2013 at 3:23 pm #

    Whatever happened to this idea of a deity taking care of everything as long as you followed whatever you believed the rules were?

  6. Andy June 16, 2013 at 5:02 pm #

    “miss out on the joy of anticipation”

    I do not find anticipation joyful.I do not like it much. joy out of life is based on good things that really happened or are happening, not on dreams that never will.

    “In case the gap between pleasurable “dreams” and the reality is too great.”

    I can relate to this too. Too much praise before seeing usually destroys movie, book or anything else for me. Protective pessimism is good strategy, especially in age of unlimited marketing. (Or maybe it is realism?)

    Does the book have chapter on optimists ignoring the reality? I would prefer to read that one :)

  7. anonymous this time June 16, 2013 at 9:14 pm #

    How about the present moment? Instead of freaking out about what might happen in the future, or looking at horrible things that have happened in the past, just… be.

    Assume the lotus position. ;-)

  8. Warren June 16, 2013 at 9:53 pm #

    @Tsu

    There is a huge difference between acknowledging certain risks, and preparing for them, to make you experience carefree, and enjoyable. And preparing for every possible risk no matter how remote it is, and worrying about it the entire time, sucking the joy out of it.

    I have always believed you make your own fate. If you believe you are going to fail, or something horrible will happen, then sub conciously you make it happen. If you believe you will succeed then you will make that happen.

    For example, all these parents that shelter their little darlings from life and risk, eventually can turn their kids into timid, fearful people. The exact type of person criminals target. They are setting their kids up to be victims.

  9. Natalie June 16, 2013 at 10:04 pm #

    Andy- I agree with the second part of your post but it sounds like youre describing cynicism rather than pessimism. The first part? I’m one of those that enjoys the anticipation as much as the actual event.

    Anonymous- sound like Yoda you do!

  10. J.T. Wenting June 16, 2013 at 11:36 pm #

    “Pessimists are not blind optimists, but they are also not the same as the anxious or depressives. Pessimists may say “I’m not going to have fun at that party.” but they still go to the party, put on a good face, and, if they have fun, they are pleasantly surprised, if they don’t they are pleased that they predicted the outcome. Pessimists are therefore quite content with life.”

    Actually not quite. As a pessimist I assume things will go wrong, then am pleasantly surprised when they don’t.
    If things do go wrong, I’m not happy about it but can accept that as it’s no worse than I’d expected all along.
    Content? Maybe, during those rare times that things in general go better than absolutely rotten.

  11. lollipoplover June 17, 2013 at 2:44 am #

    We had a “Worst-First” Field Day at my children’s elementary school this year- and it definitely sucked the joy out of what used to be the highlight of the year for most of the kids.
    Gone were the games they so looked forward to from past years- Tug-o-war (they could get hurt and muddy) and NO RUNNING, only fast walking. They kept all the kids on the blacktop as it rained the night before and the teachers said “Your parents will get mad and yell at us if you get dirty.” They did walking relays instead of running and but 3 kids still got hurt (collisions on the over crowded blacktop). Even though it was a full day activity (and parents were told to sunscreen and send in enough fluids for a day in the desert) they spent half the day watching a movie inside! When “protective pessimism” takes the “field” out of Field Day just because children could get muddy, they’ve lost touch with reality. Children SHOULD get muddy (especially on this day!) and no parent in their right mind would yell at a teacher for that.