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False positive
For Wellesley professor Julie Norem, looking at the bright side isnít always a good thing

The war in Iraq has turned us into a nation of manic-depressives. In the early days of the conflict, as coalition forces trundled through the desert unmolested, we were a cautiously hopeful people. A week later, following our untimely introduction to the fedayeen militia, we were gloomy and anxious. Now, with US troops having toppled Saddam Husseinís regime, the national mood seems to be swinging back toward optimism.

This, as far as Julie Norem is concerned, is a troubling development.

Norem, a psychology professor at Wellesley College, is the author of The Positive Power of Negative Thinking: Using Defensive Pessimism to Harness Anxiety and Perform at Your Peak (Basic Books, 2001). In the book, Norem argues that, in this culture at least, pessimism gets a bad rap. Rather than taking an itíll-be-alright-on-the-night approach to life, she writes, we should embrace our pessimism. Going out on a blind date? Count on slopping a plate of spaghetti into your lap. Job interview? Expect the word " motherfucker " to make its way out of your mouth at a key moment. Only by anticipating the worst, she insists, can we be prepared to deal with it.

But this outlook ó " defensive pessimism " ó isnít only effective in our personal and professional lives. Norem also believes that our approach to global issues ó the war in Iraq, say ó should include a healthy dose of negative thinking. (Invading a violent Middle Eastern country? Expect crazed militiamen to take potshots at you wherever and whenever they can.) Not only will such an outlook help us to win the war, Norem says, but itíll make defeat, should it occur, easier to swallow.

Julie Norem spoke with the Phoenix from her home in Wellesley.

Q: Americans are inherently optimistic. Arenít you fighting an uphill battle to convince us to be otherwise?

A: Yes. I havenít had much success. The book has been much more positively received in Europe and the Far East than in the US.

Q: What kinds of responses do your ideas about positive negative thinking get?

A: Often people donít even want to hear the end of the sentence. Theyíll just say, " Thatís ridiculous; there canít be anything positive about negative thinking. " Or, " Iíve always done really well being positive. " Which may be true, but it doesnít mean it applies to everyone.

Q: Why? Isnít optimism always the best outlook?

A: I think it has no inherent value to it. It depends on the context, whoís using it, why, and under what circumstances. But to claim optimism as a virtue without any reference to context is, I think, vacuous, inappropriate, and misleading. Also, optimism tends to go hand in hand with overconfidence, and often with egocentrism, where you feel okay about yourself, but maybe you feel more okay about yourself than you should.

Q: Isnít pessimism sometimes self-fulfilling? If I go to a party convinced that no one will want to talk to me, chances are Iíll behave in a way thatíll make no one want to talk to me.

A: Thatís likely to happen if people are just being pessimistic. Thatís why I differentiate between plain old pessimism and defensive pessimism, because defensive pessimism starts with a pessimistic scenario, but then what people using the strategy do is to play through that scenario, imagine standing there solemnly looking into the punch bowl. When they do that, they almost automatically imagine what they could do to change that scenario. They focus on effective action, and by the time they get to the party, they know what theyíre going to do.

Q: What about things we have no control over? Worrying about a piano falling on my head every time I step out the door isnít going to help me much when a piano finally does fall on my head.

A: Thatís right. Except that ó hereís the rub ó if someoneís worrying about something, it almost never works to tell them not to worry, or for them to tell themselves not to worry, because they will still worry. Even if itís irrational, it doesnít cost very much to look up to make sure thereís no piano coming every 10 feet, and if that makes you less anxious, itíll actually help you to function better.

Q: A while back, someone dropped a can of Coke in the lobby of a federal building in Washington, DC, and suddenly there were guys in hazmat suits cleaning it up. Isnít there a fine line between pessimism and outright paranoia?

A: Youíre right, itís a fine line and it can be difficult to draw. I think itís a combination of evaluating the probability of a negative event, how costly that negative event is, and what you can do to control it. In the case of the hazmat suits in the federal building, itís somewhat costly to respond that way to a trivial event; on the other hand, if it really were a biological weapon, itís much more costly not to be prepared than it is to be prepared and overreact. So I say go for it.

Q: But isnít that what the terrorists had in mind when they attacked us ó that weíd be running around like chickens with our heads cut off at every tiny threat?

A: Well, you have to not have your head cut off. I guess you have to differentiate between panicking and preparing.

Q: How do you think pessimism about the situation in Iraq will help us fully resolve it?

A: One of the things that happens with negative thinking is that you tend to use different kinds of strategies, to be less obtuse. You tend to focus on a lot of the details and be able to generate a lot of different alternatives that might be effective. But when youíre optimistic you tend to gloss over details, you tend to use very heuristic thinking ó " Oh, we can take care of that. Remember World War II? We rebuilt Japan no problem " ó so youíre not only less prepared for the immediate contingencies, youíre also less prepared for future contingencies, because you forget there are big differences between Iraq and Japan.

Q: In an e-mail to me earlier, you wrote that Donald Rumsfeld seems to fit the model for " extreme optimism run amok, " while Colin Powell seems to think more like a defensive pessimist. Can you elaborate on this?

A: Itís funny, I was reading the [New Yorker] piece by [Seymour] Hersh [claiming that Secretary of State Rumsfeld underestimated the level of resistance US forces would face in Iraq, resulting in what some military personnel have characterized as a lack of American firepower on the battlefield] when you e-mailed. The armed forces have lots of defensive pessimists, and they kept saying, " We need to prepare for this contingency, we need to prepare for that contingency, " and Rumsfeld kept saying " No, no, no, no, no, " just ignoring them. Thatís classic for extreme optimists. They are so confident in their vision of how things are going to happen, and they become so committed to that vision, that they tune out anything that doesnít fit.

Colin Powell, while he projects a lot of confidence as a leader, when you read descriptions of him as a military strategist, he comes across very much as a defensive pessimist. Heís very careful to have plans A-B-C-D, to always have one ó and probably more ó back door for troops to get out if things donít go the way theyíre supposed to. Thatís very much not the Rumsfeld approach, and very much a defensive-pessimism approach.

Q: Is it important that our leaders at least present the appearance of optimism?

A: I think it is useful, yes. One of the things we assume is that if people are optimistic and confident then they are also competent, that they can deliver on the bill of goods theyíre selling. So in that sense, itís very important to project optimism regardless of how you feel. Optimism tends to be characteristic of successful politicians in general, because people like to hear those reassuring, Iíve-got-it-under-control kinds of messages. But politicians vary in the extent to which they just project that confidence and where in private theyíre willing to hear alternative views, and I think many in the Bush administration are unwilling to hear alternatives.

Q: Isnít there a possibility that pessimism will perpetuate itself, that youíll simply get bogged down in negative thinking and defeatism?

A: I think the key is to think in terms of action. You focus on concrete details, so you tend not to do that endless Hamletian rumination. You start doing things instead of just thinking. Youíre not focusing on the anxiety so much, so negative thinking is less likely to spiral out of control, and you avoid the pitfalls of defeatism.

Q: You could argue that it was defensive pessimism that got us into this mess in the first place ó we anticipated that Saddam Hussein might use weapons of mass destruction against us and so invaded Iraq, no?

A: Yes, except that the action was, from my perspective at least, so precipitous that it doesnít really fit the defensive-pessimism scenario. I think the UN approach was much more compatible with how the defensive pessimist would think. If you worry about weapons of mass destruction, what you do is you go into Iraq and, in a very painstaking way, try to find them and then destroy them, as opposed to assuming that the way to handle it is to just go to war.

Q: Are you a pessimist?

A: I am anxious and an optimist, so Iím trying to learn to be a defensive pessimist. What anxious optimists do is either self-handicap, do self-defeating things, or repress, and I think both of those are really bad.

Q: So how do you feel about the current situation?

A: Extremely anxious.

Chris Wright can be reached at

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Issue Date: April 17 -24, 2003
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