Why We Tend To Expect The Worst: The Pessimism Bias And Its Impact On Life Events

Medically reviewed by Andrea Brant, LMHC
Updated March 18, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Imagine you've studied hard for an upcoming test or presentation. You know the material inside and out, and you have a strong chance of doing well. However, instead of thinking about accomplishing your goal, all you can think about is failing. This is an example of pessimism bias, a form of thinking that can affect us individually and socially. It may limit our personal growth and affect our relationships, even putting us at greater risk of mental health conditions like depression. Keep reading to learn more about pessimism bias, including its effects on life and how to create a more balanced mindset. 

Getty/Vadym Pastukh
A constant negative outlook can affect your mental health

What is the pessimism bias

The pessimism bias is a cognitive bias characterized by expecting the worst. It involves overvaluing the possibility of negative outcomes while undervaluing the probability of positive ones. This might lead us to believe that future events will turn out poorly. A negative thought pattern can affect us on a personal level while also having broader effects on society, impacting our decisions and overall mental health.

You might think of cognitive biases as brain shortcuts. They're ways our minds simplify the massive amounts of information we must process every day. In the case of pessimism bias, these shortcuts can lead to us making unrealistic negative predictions. As a result, we may develop a skewed perspective of the world around us. Why some people have more pessimistic tendencies than others could be due to different factors like the environment they grew up in, their genes, or other life experiences.

A pessimistic view may make it harder for you to handle stress, maintain fulfilling relationships, or reach your personal goals. When communities make important decisions in areas like politics or finance, pessimism bias may lead to them overestimating risks and underestimating rewards. Knowing the psychology behind pessimism bias may help you recognize and manage its effects on your thoughts and behaviors.

Pessimism bias examples

You might notice pessimism bias in a variety of scenarios, including personal situations, future life events, societal decisions, and investment choices. Let’s go over a few examples of pessimism bias in different contexts.

Planning projects

One place we might see pessimism bias is in project planning. People may often fear they'll face more obstacles than they actually will, leading them to predict failure. They might overestimate the challenges and roadblocks they'll experience, which may cause them to have a negative outlook on the project's success.

  • Societal perceptions: Pessimism bias not only affects our personal expectations but also how we perceive society. This bias might lead us to believe that society is headed in a downward spiral, even when there is evidence of progress and improvement. People may tend to foresee gloomy scenarios for the community, the country, or even the entire ​​world, underestimating humanity's ability to rebound from negative events.  
  • Health predictions: Pessimism bias may come into play when people think about health outcomes. Despite statistical evidence and medical advice, some people may think they’re more likely to develop serious conditions or diseases. Pessimistic bias can lead to unnecessary stress and anxiety. It might even prevent people from taking care of their health, such as eating right and exercising regularly.
  • Investment decisions: When it comes to finance, pessimism bias can greatly influence investment decisions. Investors might focus too much on potential losses and negative market trends. Pessimism bias might make them overly cautious, causing them to miss out on opportunities for gains. A cautious approach might not align with their financial goals and cause them to underestimate how much risk they're actually comfortable with.

Pessimism bias is not always a negative thing. In some situations, it may be helpful by spurring us to prepare for possible problems. It can also encourage us to look more closely at the details, helping us to steer clear of potential mistakes. Finding a balance between optimistic and pessimistic thinking might be an effective way to maintain a well-rounded view of life.

Benefits and limits of the pessimism bias

Pessimism bias may influence your decision-making and interactions with the world around you. However, there can be both benefits and limits to this bias, which may either help or hinder you depending on the situation.

In some cases, negative expectations may help us prepare for potential setbacks and challenges. A cautious outlook may push us to plan more effectively and pay more attention to details. However, research suggests that giving in to pessimism bias can also lead to unrealistically negative views and expectations. Self-defeating beliefs may then hold us back and keep us from growing.

Counteracting the influence of pessimism with optimism may help us make the most of the benefits while lessening potential drawbacks. Balancing perspectives might also mean being aware of unrealistic optimism, also known as optimism bias, which refers to the tendency to be overly positive. Considering both positive and negative potential outcomes may lead to more accurate planning and an improved understanding of various situations. 

Achieving a balanced outlook may not always be easy and may involve acknowledging uncomfortable truths. However, given the potential harm that biases can bring into our everyday lives, maintaining a balance between optimism and pessimism can be vital to our well-being.

How to overcome the pessimism bias

Overcoming pessimism bias may involve adjusting your mindset to manage life's challenges with a nuanced perspective. You may be able to set more realistic expectations and make smarter decisions by keeping in mind that things can turn out positive or negative whether they’re in your control or not. 

One way to counteract pessimism bias may be to focus on past successes and positive events. You might then be able to build confidence and understand that positive outcomes are possible. Regularly practicing gratitude may also increase positive feelings and help you look on the bright side. Here are some practical steps you can take when trying to overcome pessimism bias:

  • Acknowledge negative thoughts: Try to notice when your mind is focusing solely on how things could go wrong. Instead, make a conscious effort to consider the positive possibilities. Challenge yourself to flip every negative thought to a constructive or optimistic one.
  • Seek objective feedback: Talk to friends, family, or a counselor about your concerns and ask for their feedback on whether they believe your outlook is overly pessimistic. Their perspective might help shed light on the reality of your situation and help you see things differently.
  • Reflect on past successes: Regularly think back to your past achievements and positive experiences to build self-esteem and positivity. Use this reflection as a reminder of your ability to prevail through challenges.
  • Practice gratitude: Make a habit of appreciating the positive things in your life, no matter how small they may seem. Practicing gratitude may help increase your overall happiness and contentment.
  • Surround yourself with positivity: Spend time with people who have a positive outlook on life and do activities that bring you joy and happiness. Being in a positive environment might help keep you motivated and inspired.

You may be able to reduce the impact of pessimism bias by using some or all of these strategies. Over time, you could start to naturally develop a more balanced and realistic outlook on future events and situations, contributing to greater mental health and overall well-being both personally and professionally. 

Online therapy for managing pessimism bias

Pessimism bias may negatively affect your mental health over time. Online therapy can be a potential option to manage this mindset and tackle any other mental health challenges that might come with it. With online therapy, you can receive professional guidance and support from a licensed therapist in the comfort of your own home.

Online platforms like BetterHelp have thousands of therapists who are specialized in numerous areas, including mindsets, life outlooks, and belief systems that shape how people think and feel. Instead of conducting extensive research on your own, you can fill out a form online and get matched with a professional who’s right for you within 48 hours. If the therapist you’re matched with isn’t the appropriate fit, you can easily switch until you find a provider who meets your unique needs and preferences. 

A constant negative outlook can affect your mental health

The efficacy of online therapy for pessimism bias

Research has shown that online therapy can be just as effective as in-person therapy for addressing a range of concerns, including a tendency toward pessimism. In one study, researchers assessed the efficacy of a web-based positive psychology program meant to cultivate self-efficacy and optimism in pessimistic individuals. Results showed that the intervention “increased the pursuit of engagement-related happiness in the short term and reduced dysfunctional attitudes across follow-ups.” Participants who had previously described themselves as pessimistic found that they had more to gain and reported fewer symptoms of depression at a follow-up. 


Pessimism bias is a cognitive tendency that may lead you to think bad things are more likely to occur than good things. This way of thinking may affect your decision-making abilities and how you feel about life overall. With some awareness of pessimism bias, you may be able to proactively work on not letting it control your thoughts and behaviors. Challenging your thoughts and considering other possible outcomes—among other strategies—may help you fight the negativity and approach situations more objectively. If a pessimistic outlook is harming your quality of life, working with an online therapist through a platform such as BetterHelp could be beneficial.

Understand how different outlooks can shape life
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