Pessimists are better at lawyering than optimists, Dr. Martin Seligman tells us in his 2004 book Authentic Happiness. That doesn’t surprise me, because the essence of lawyering is looking for the downside and trying to protect against it. The better you are at imagining those downsides, the better you are at your job.
But there is a high cost of pessimism on life happiness and functionality, as Seligman discusses at length in his earlier work, Learned Optimism. Pessimists are more prone to depression (hello, lawyers have a 3 times higher rate of depression than the general population) and ill health, among many other things.
Also, pessimists don’t persevere at the same rate as optimists, which means pessimists often don’t achieve goals that are achievable. Like, say, finding an alternative legal career that gives you fulfillment and high satisfaction.
The chief way that pessimism shows up is as learned helplessness, according to Seligman. The way he discovered the connection between learned helplessness and pessimism is fascinating, so bear with me.
Learned Helplessness Produces Whimpering Dogs
Seligman’s career lightning bulb moment came when he walked into the middle of an experiment which was going badly. The research team was trying to show that dogs would, when given the opportunity, escape from electric shocks they were receiving in a box-like enclosure. There was a low divider between the box the dogs were in, where the shocks were, and another compartment which was shock-free. But the dogs weren’t trying to escape. Instead, they just lay down and whimpered.
Seligman divined that the problem was that the dogs had been taught, in a previous part of the experiment, that there was nothing they could do to alleviate the shocks. So when they started receiving shocks in this new phase, they didn’t investigate whether the other side of the box was shock-free. They had been taught to be helpless, and that there was nothing they could do to alleviate their suffering.
Of course, not everyone saw the dog’s behavior through this lens, so Seligman and some colleagues devised another set of experiments. Dogs were divided into three groups. One group received no conditioning. Another group were given shocks, but were also given a means to escape the shocks—pushing a button with their noses. The third group were shocked, but not given a way to stop the shocks.
Each dog was then put in the divided box, and given shocks. Of the unconditioned group, all of them investigated and discovered they could escape the compartment they were in, and did. Of the second group, which had been taught that they could stop the shocks, all of them investigated and jumped to the other compartment. In the third group, which had been shocked but not given any means to stop the shocks, 6 of 8 simply sat down and whimpered. They didn’t even try to investigate whether they could escape. That’s right, two-thirds of all of the dogs who had been taught they couldn’t control the situation just lay down and whimpered.
Helpless People Act Like Whimpering Dogs, Too
People, as it turns out, reacted similarly in a slightly different situation. Rather than inescapable shocks, the groups were put in a room (one at a time) where they were exposed to a loud noise, and given the task of turning off the noise. One group could turn off the noise if they discovered the right sequence of buttons, while the other group could do nothing to turn off the noise. After that conditioning, the subjects were placed in a different room. When their hand was on one side of a box, there was a loud whooshing noise, but that noise could easily be stopped by moving the hand to the other side of the divided box.
Two-thirds of the subjects who had been taught they were helpless to stop the loud noise in the first situation did not even attempt moving their hand to the other side of the box. They simply sat there, taking the noisy assault.
You do see the parallels between abusive behavior dished out in many law firms and your belief you can’t find a rewarding job, don’t you?
3 P’s of Pessimism
What does this have to do with pessimism? Quite a lot, actually. Pessimism is the belief that you are helpless to improve your lot. When bad things happen, pessimists believe those events are
- Personal: The event or situation is due to some flaw or mistake of theirs.
- Pervasive: Unlimited, space-wise—the situation, trait or event bleeds into everything; it has no boundaries or limits.
- Permanent: Unlimited, time-wise—the situation is not going to change, no matter what.
Are you seeing yourself yet?
Here’s a pessimistic, drumbeat-of-doom example that I hear a lot: I don’t have any job skills except law, so I’m always going to have to be a lawyer, even though I hate it.
Have you, perhaps, said that or some version of it to yourself?
It’s personal: you lack skills, and that’s your fault. It’s pervasive: nothing in law could be other than hateful and unpleasant. It’s permanent: you’re always going to have to do it.
Optimists, as you might expect, harbor the exact opposite beliefs when bad things happen: it’s due to something beyond their control, is a limited circumstance, and it’s temporary: I didn’t get that job because the interviewer was in a bad mood and hadn’t even looked at my resume. See how temporary, limited, and non-personal that is?
Good Events Are Temporary
Pessimists differ from optimists in their interpretation of good events, too. They think about good events the way that optimists think about bad events: that good things happen independent of anything the pessimist does, for a specific reason, and won’t last.
So a pessimist gets a job offer and thinks, “Wow, the other candidates must have really blown their interviews on the one day I was really on my game. If I accept this job, how long before they figure out I’m not all that?” See how impersonal (the other candidates did something), limited (if they hadn’t failed, things would be different), and temporary (I won’t have this job for long once they know the truth) that view is?
Start observing yourself for statements that use “always” and “never.” Listen to yourself when you explain why something did or didn’t work. I promise it will be eye-opening.
Next time, we’ll dig a bit deeper into what pessimism does and doesn’t do for you in your life and work.
Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer and recovering pessimist. She likes to remind her clients that it’s not how far you go, but how far you’ve come, that makes the real difference for their lives. Try coaching and see the difference in your own life—a free, no-obligation sample session is yours for the asking. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule yours today.