Anticipatory and post hoc cushioning strategies: Optimism and defensive pessimism in “risky” situations

Abstract

The concept of cognitive strategies is proposed as a model for the process by which individuals cushion themselves against threats to self-esteem in “risky” situations. Two strategies are discussed. The first is defensive pessimism, an anticipatory strategy that involves setting defensively low expectations prior to entering a situation, so as to defend against loss of self-esteem in the event of failure. The second is an optimistic strategy, where expectations are high at the outset, and post hoc restructuring of the situation is done when the outcome is known. Expectations about performance on an anagram task were collected from prescreened optimistics and defensive pessimists. After completion of the task, subjects were given false failure or success feedback. A posttest measuring self-reported satisfaction, feelings of control, and performance evaluations was administered. As predicted, subjects selected for defensive pessimist attitudes expected to perform significantly worse than did those selected for optimistic attitudes, even though there was no difference in actual performance. Moreover, optimists demonstrated attributional egotism in claiming significantly more control over their performance in the success condition than in the failure condition. Pessimists did not show this pattern. The data provide evidence of post hoc cushioning efforts among optimists, whereas defensive pessimists seem to be cushioned by their initial structuring of the situation. It is argued that these strategies can be understood as motivated attempts to solve the “problem” of a “risky” situation.

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Correspondence to Julie K. Norem.

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The authors would like to thank Aaron Brower, Nancy Genero, Hazel Markus, Paula Niedenthal, Carolin Shower, Steve Hollon, and two anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments on earlier drafts of this paper.

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Norem, J.K., Cantor, N. Anticipatory and post hoc cushioning strategies: Optimism and defensive pessimism in “risky” situations. Cogn Ther Res 10, 347–362 (1986). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF01173471

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Key words

  • strategies
  • defensive pessimism
  • optimism