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Defensive Pessimism and Stress and Coping

Published Online:https://doi.org/10.1521/soco.1989.7.2.92

Extensive research supports the contention that an optimistic orientation may contribute to more effective coping with stressful life events than will pessimism (Scheier & Carver, 1985; Taylor & Brown, 1988). However, there is also evidence indicating that a strategy called defensive pessimism can be an effective way of coping with anxiety and motivating performance (Norem & Cantor, 1986a,b). Data from a longitudinal field study of Honors college students at the University of Michigan converge with previous experimental results in demonstrating the potential effectiveness of defensive pessimism within achievement domains. Longitudinal data from this study also indicate, however, that use of defensive pessimism within the achievement domain can have implications (or “side effects”) for the structure of activities, social interaction, and mood within and beyond that domain. Discussion centers on the importance of understanding the potential costs and benefits of both optimism and defensive pessimism as a function of particular goals and specific situations. From this perspective, an individual's capacity to respond flexibly to situations may be a crucial aspect of his or her ability to cope with a variety of potential stressors. Viewing optimism and pessimism as strategies that individuals may potentially select for specific situations leads to an emphasis on the process of coping over time and the potential for adjustment and change.