"This is really hard. I'm not sure I can do it," says your friend or student as they begin freaking out about an upcoming event, test, or stressful life experience. You believe in this person's abilities and reply back, "It will be okay. I'm sure you will do fine." You then watch as the person fails miserably.
What the heck happened? You have faith in this person. Is it possible your well meaning encouragement actually may have hindered your friend or student's success rather than contributed to it? This week we learn about Defensive Pessimism.
Optimism is Not Always the Best Response
When a student freaks out about a test saying they are going to fail or do poorly, the worst response you can give is to say something that minimizes that person's fear. But, this is precisely what most people do. They want to alleviate the discomfort and encourage the person by emphasizing that they know they can do it or that, "everything will be just fine."
According to the research (and the seasoned teachers who will tell you they figured this out long before), students who vented their fear and were given an optimistic response -- meaning they were told everything would be okay -- actually did poorer on the tests than if they had not been given that form of support. In fact, when those students encountered the tougher questions, they gave up faster and were more likely to not complete them.
The students who were given a pessimistic response -- meaning they were told it would be difficult and they would have to do more to prepare -- did better on the tests. When confronted with the more difficult problems, they hung in there longer to solve them and were less likely to give up. We need defensive pessimism when we know in advance things will be difficult.
When I present this in teacher training, the veteran teachers nod along -- they've watched this happen in their classes. Many of them have naturally modified how they support or encourage their students as a result of their own experiences. They didn't need the research study.
But I've Always Been Taught to Be Constantly Optimistic
When we go into something expecting it to be difficult, we prepare more and even work harder during the task. This expectation of something being difficult actually engages us to do more and push ourselves harder than we otherwise would. When we expect something to be easy or to be "no problem," we don't go into it with the same level of preparation.
Even during the task, if something the people around us have minimized and said would be easy proves to be difficult, people are shown to give up faster and do poorer as a result. Our expectations matter. Optimism is one thing -- minimization is quite another.
What do we learn from this?
If someone says something is hard or will be hard for them, don't minimize the fear. Embrace the fear. Rather than say, "I'm sure you will be fine" instead say, "You're saying this is going to be difficult for you and you know yourself better than I do. What can I do to help you better prepare and feel more confident taking this test or dealing with this situation?" This second response is much more helpful and proves more effective in the long run.
Stop minimizing your own and other people's fears. Learn to use defensive pessimism.
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