Character  &  Context

Being a Negative Nancy Has Its Benefits

Image of a lady holding two balloons with a happy and sad face in front of her own face

By Meredith Wise

“Nobody likes a Negative Nancy,” or so the saying goes. But as it turns out, she may actually have a leg up on the rest of us when it comes to goal attainment and balancing expectations with results. The research was presented during the symposium “The Upsides of Negativity: Surprising Benefits Come from Unpleasant, Aversive, or Problematic Starts” at SPSP’s 16th Annual Convention in Long Beach, California.

“As a general rule, we live in a culture of positivity,” said Dr. Kate Sweeny. At the same time however, pessimism is also a common feeling―especially in the final moments before major news is delivered. It’s not uncommon for even the most otherwise optimistic person to feel a stab of panic or doubt before a big announcement, such as dreading the results of an important exam or anxiously awaiting the results of an election—two of the circumstances studied in new research from Sweeny and colleagues.

Sweeny and her team at the University of California Riverside looked at the results of three studies: One on college students waiting for midterm grades; one on law students waiting for their bar results; and one on voters waiting on news of the passage or failure of California’s Proposition 19 in 2010.

Taken together, the studies show that if you brace yourself for the worst while waiting on news, you won’t be as upset about failure at the moment of truth, but you will be happier if the news is good. On the other hand, if you are confident in an expectation of success while waiting for news, failure will feel devastating and success won’t feel nearly as good.

The unfortunate trade-off is that those feeling pessimistic also show a decrease in motivation. In the study analyzing Proposition 19 voters, those who were more optimistic that the measure would pass showed more motivation to actually go to the polls and vote.

It appears a “dose of pessimism” can be a good thing, but at the expense of motivation. Alternatively, “Retaining optimism is motivating but emotionally costly if the news is bad,” Sweeny said.

Another set of studies, from Dr. Kathleen Vohs and Ph.D. candidate Yajin Wang of the University of Minnesota, show that people who feel negatively actually work harder to achieve a goal—but only if they believe their mood can change and if the task seems doable. In turn, working toward a challenging goal can offset negative moods and lead to a longer-lasting mood repair.

In one study, participants were told they would be evaluated for a “career success score.” They were given a set of puzzles to complete, and near the end of the exercise they were stopped and shown a video designed to trigger certain emotions like anger or sadness. After the video, participants were informed that the researchers needed a bit more information – the completion of one more puzzle – in order to calculate their score.

Those shown videos that induced feelings of anger or sadness completed the last task faster than the other participants. However, the team also found that unless participants believed that their negative mood could change or if they didn’t think a goal was achievable, they didn’t actually bother putting forth as much effort to complete the final task.

Vohs and Wang also looked at mood improvement from hedonic tasks as opposed to more challenging ones. Interestingly, their research shows that mood improvement stemming from completion of generally more fun hedonic tasks does not last as a mood boost that comes from completing challenging tasks. Vohs compares these hedonic tasks to a sugar rush—they make you feel good right away, but their effects aren’t long lasting.

Knowing that mood improvement from the completion of challenging tasks has more staying power, why would those in a negative mood choose hedonic tasks over more challenging ones, as the team’s final study showed?

“People don’t know what’s good for them!” Vohs said. “Working to complete challenging goals can boost your mood, but people don’t realize that.”

So, Negative Nancys of the world—rejoice! All is not lost. Tackle those tough challenges you’ve been putting off and you may just be happier at the end of the day.

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