The prejudice against pessimism

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You would think that having an accurate view of yourself, your situation and others around you would contribute to mental health. Well-adjusted humans are supposed to see the world realistically, and believing illusions is considered a hallmark of mental illness. But it is simply not that way. People tend to filter information in a positive light, and society rewards this. Evidently believing illusion makes humans happier. So the average view of reality is actually overly optimistic.

Our manner of gathering data is not at all based on logical and unbiased observation. We gather a piece here and there and fill in the blanks with our own self-serving prejudices. As humans, we interpret what we see to be advantageous to ourselves. This viewpoint colors almost everything we observe. We tend to live our lives viewing the world around us and ourselves with an enduring pattern of bias.

We know we all make mistakes, right? But we view our own errors as small as inconsequential, while we tend to view our successes as more spectacular than they really are. This is reflected in personality tests in which people judge themselves to have far more positive traits than negative. It seems that you really do not have to teach children to have positive self-esteem, as most people rapidly take to that tactic. Also people tend to forget incidents where they exhibited negative behavior. Therefore the question “What is the biggest mistake you ever made?” is not so difficult to answer because it embarrasses us. It stumps the typical person because their memories tend to forget that mistake.

In psychological experiment in which people must predict whether or not they will fail or succeed in a task, they err on the side of assuming success. And there is that pervasive tendency for the majority of people to respond to surveys indicating they see themselves as happier, smarter, and more able or well-adjusted than the average human. Of course it is not logically possible for most people to be better than others. So why do we cling to this illogical view? Why do we label those who have more balanced in self-perceptions as low in self-esteem, or moderately depressed?

In the following weeks I want to look at our prejudice against pessimism. What exactly drives it? Is it simply a fade of our times or has it always existed? I want to examine this tendency for most people to fail to see themselves as they really are, and look down on those who do.

Alicke, M. D. (1985). Global self-evaluation as determined by the desirability and controllability of trait adjectives. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 49, 1621-1630.
Campbell, J. D. (1986). Similarity and uniqueness: The effects of attribute type, relevance, and individual differences in self-esteem and depression. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 50, 281- 294.
Fiske, S. T., & Taylor, S. E. (1984). Social cognition. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
Nisbett, R. E., & Ross, L. (1980). Human inference: Strategies and shortcomings of social judgment. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Watson, D., & Clark, L. A. (1984). Negative affectivity: The disposition to experience aversive emotional states. Psychological Bulletin, 96, 465-490.
This entry was posted in Group psychology, Leadership, Manipulation, Persuasion. Bookmark the permalink.

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