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~Wellesley Professor Says Negative Thinking is Powerful, Too~

For immediate release:
Sept. 6, 2001


Arlie Corday, Public Information
Phone: 781-283-3321

WELLESLEY, Mass. - Move over Norman Vincent Peale: Wellesley College professor Julie K. Norem has found that negative thoughts can do some of us a world of good.

Can thinking negative really be positive? It's not the American way to look on the dark side, Norem admits.

"We are an unbelievably optimistic culture," she says. "It saturates our history, our cultural myths. People who aren't naturally optimistic feel quite a bit of social pressure to be that way. There's an implication that something is wrong with them. So when someone comes up with evidence that it may work very well to be pessimistic, it's a vindication for a lot of people."

So Norem has news for the chronically optimistic: It may be just as helpful to be negative if that's your preference. Based on her research, Norem has written a book, "The Positive Power of Negative Thinking: Using 'Defensive Pessimism' to Harness Anxiety and Perform at Your Peak" (Basic Books, September 2001).

Perhaps the time is ripe for a little negative thinking. "The current climate, both economic and political, is conducive to the discussion of pessimism," Norem says. "The bombing out of all the dot-com companies and their like makes people wonder if we all were a bit giddy and overly optimistic."

Norem's research focuses on two strategies for dealing with life's challenges: defensive pessimism, for the committed worriers among us, and strategic optimism, for the "think positive" types.

"Strategic optimists aren't very anxious, usually," Norem explains. "When they have to give a talk or go on a blind date, for example, they typically set high expectations and then actively avoid going over in their heads what could happen. It works well for them."

Defensive pessimists, on the other hand, are worrywarts. It's just part of their personality. "When you are anxious, you can't ignore it," Norem points out. "You can't just say you won't be anxious anymore. You have to do something about it. So defensive pessimists lower their expectations, and that takes a little pressure off. Secondly, they start playing through how disaster might come about. It leaves them more in control if they think they know what to expect."

While this strategy may sound depressing, it serves a purpose. "It switches the focus from their anxiety and their feelings to the task," Norem says. "As they play through the possible outcomes, they not only analyze the terrible things that might happen, but they also figure out how they could prevent those things from happening. By the time they've done that, they've done some very effective planning and preparation."

So which is better? Thinking the best or the worst? It turns out each approach is equally effective, perfectly suited for different personalities. Are you a strategic optimist or a defensive pessimist? To find out, take the following test: Think of a situation in which you want to do your best. It may be related to work, to your social life or to any of your goals. Rate on a scale of 1 to 7 how true each statement is for you:

1. . . . . . . . . 2. . . . . . . . . 3. . . . . . . . . 4. . . . . . . . . 5. . . . . . . . . 6. . . . . . . . . 7

Not at all true of me..................................................Very true true of me

____I often start out expecting the worst even though I will probably do okay.
____I worry about how things will turn out.
____I carefully consider all possible outcomes.
____I often worry that I won't be able to carry through my intentions.
____I spend lots of time imagining what could go wrong.
____I imagine how I would feel if things went badly.
____I try to picture how I could fix things if something went wrong.
____I'm careful not to become overconfident in these situations.
____ I spend a lot of time planning when one of these situations is coming up.
____I imagine how I would feel if things went well.
____In these situations, sometimes I worry more about looking like a fool than doing really well.
____Considering what can go wrong helps me to prepare.

If your score is:
70-84: You're a true defensive pessimist. You've got your anxiety well in hand.
55-69: You're worried and thoughtful, but you need to tune up your defensive pessimism so you're harnessing that worry, not wallowing in it.
30-54: You don't have a typical strategy for managing anxiety. That's fine--but think about whether you're really performing at your peak.
12-29: You are clearly a strategic optimist. Enjoy the bright side-but beware of getting too cocky.

Wouldn't it be easier simply to stop obsessing? Unfortunately, worriers were born to fret.

"There's a tendency to think it's stupid to worry," Norem says. "But if you are a worrier, it doesn't work to pretend you're a different person. You have deal with who you are."

If you run from your anxiety, you become what Norem calls a "self-handicapper," someone who worries without any coping tactics. Worriers are better off acknowledging their fears--and using them to strategize for success.

Founded in 1875, Wellesley College has been a leader in liberal arts and the education of women for 125 years. The College's 500-acre campus near Boston is home to 2,300 undergraduate students. For more information, contact the Office for Public Information at 781-283-3321 or go to the web site


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  • Date Modified: October 9, 2001
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