Newswise — A Central Michigan University psychologist explores the "brighter side" of pessimism in his latest research.

Bryan Gibson, a social psychologist at CMU, collaborated with David Sanbonmatsu of the University of Utah to explore the ways in which being a pessimist might work to one's advantage. Specifically, they discovered that with regard to gambling, pessimists tend to make safer choices than their optimistic counterparts.

"There's been a lot of research that indicates that optimists tend to cope better when they get negative health news, for example. They follow treatments, they recover more quickly, and they're less likely to get sick," Gibson said.

But until now, little research had been done that demonstrated the positive side to pessimism. "This presents the other side of the story," Gibson said.

To test their theories, Gibson and Sanbonmatsu gave three different groups of college students a list of questions to determine their optimistic or pessimistic dispositions. The results appear in the February issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

In the first study, students were asked questions about their motivations to gamble and their feelings toward gambling after winning or losing. The next study involved several hands of blackjack, including a $10 reward that participants could either bet or keep. In the final study, students played a simulated slot machine game to win chances at a $50 prize.

Throughout the studies, the researchers found that the optimistic participants were more likely to believe that they could win and had more positive feelings about losses and near-wins than pessimists. When asked about their gambling performance later, they also were more likely to remember more wins than their pessimistic peers.

"Our data show no difference in betting between optimists and pessimists after winning. But, optimists are more likely to persist in the face of losses," Gibson said. "They're less ready to give up hope."

Gibson said that a person's tendency toward optimism or pessimism is just one of many predictors of his or her gambling behavior. Some people, regardless of their positive or negative disposition, may consider gambling merely as entertainment and therefore gamble despite having little confidence they could win, for example. Others may refrain from gambling not because they believe they can't win, but rather because they may have moral beliefs against it.

While the research focused mainly on gambling, Gibson and Sanbonmatsu said there are other settings in which being a pessimist may work to one's advantage — in the stock market, for example, or in the case of an entrepreneur who is faced with bankruptcy. In their study, they also noted that pessimists may thrive in other countries where resources and opportunities are not as abundant as in the United States.

"In these circumstances, pessimists tend to minimize their risk," Gibson said. "So despite its many benefits, in some situations optimism could have some drawbacks."

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Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, February 2004 (Feb-2004)