An interesting observation in the latest issue of The Atlantic. Its “Study of Studies” sidebar column offers another few pieces of the puzzle on how a worldview of optimism/pessimism emerges in an individual. The first is that if one is pessimistic, one may appear to have a more urgent and serious communication style, and thus be more socially attractive. That seems valid. The other is that…
“Optimism can also beget disappointment [on a personal level]”
The example given here is of a student who hopefully expects a good mark for an essay, but gets a lesser mark. However it references only one short psychology paper. The paper’s 2010 date is ‘pre crisis’ in psychology, and the sample was 77 “students in a psychology class”, so one has to be a little cautious. One class of malnourished and hungover hormone-addled adolescents does not extrapolate well to the general population. The paper cited is: Sweeny and Shepperd, “The Costs of Optimism and the Benefits of Pessimism“, Emotion, Oct. 2010.
Simplistic, then, but the finding rings true. Such a habitual year-on-year pessimism (arising from unrealistic irrational optimism) could easily become ingrained at the personal level, given the right personality types and intelligence level. Certain types of adolescents could later use that habitual approach to shape their early understanding of the larger world.
The study notes that the biggest irrational optimists appear to be aware of the trade-off between ‘happy-go-lucky today / dashed down tomorrow’…
“people seem to be aware of the potential costs of optimism — participants who predicted higher scores before feedback also anticipated experiencing greater disappointment should they perform poorly”
But they’re willing to pay the price. This seems to relate to the idea that the ability to imagine longer time-horizons is a factor in optimism/pessimism. If you can’t really imagine a time more than a few weeks ahead, why worry about the essay that has to be delivered in eight weeks time, at the end of term? It would thus be interesting to see how such findings fit with each student’s time-horizon and intelligence level. Are the less intelligent and more impulsive students more inclined to be irrationally optimistic about their test scores, because they naturally lack a long time-horizon?
But what if this whole process were monstrously delayed, until after leaving the cocoon of education? Consider the changed nature of that cocoon in the late 1990s and 2000s: i) the cultivation of a vapid universal “self-esteem” in schools; ii) the “all must have prizes” culture (see Melanie Phillips et al), rampant grade inflation, the dumbing down of the curriculum so that low-grade teachers could handle it; iii) the severe curtailment of children’s ‘free range’ engagement with the natural world, their diminishing opportunities to learn how to handle individual autonomous freedom, and iv) also the constant lurid invocation of dire (but statistically highly improbable) dangers set against a pervasive drumbeat of political correctness.
In which case the habitual year-on-year pessimism which Sweeny and Shepperd pinpoint would have been delayed in multiple ways over many years, with the most susceptible personality types perhaps being the worst affected. Possibly then contributing to the monstrous temper-tantrums we’ve been suffering recently, as certain large parts (not all) of the Millennial generation finally encounter the real-world after 20-odd years of smothering and cocooning.
Doubtless others have a better handle on the murky depths of these psychologies than I do, and have already said this better than I can in a hasty blog post. For instance, I hear that the new Vox Day book SJW’s Always Double Down has several chapters which make a forensic assessment of the psychology of the loud-but-small activist segment of Generation Snowflake. But it seems to me that some of Sweeny and Shepperd’s ‘thwarted psychology’ of optimism/pessimism may be at the root of their troubles.