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The seduction of pessimism

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The Psychology of Money: Timeless lessons on wealth, greed, and happiness
Morgan Housel
Esseen arvioitu lukuaika on 5 minuuttia.


“Optimism sounds like a sales pitch. Pessimism sounds like someone trying to help you.”


Genetically wired to be attracted to pessimism

Tell someone something amazing is going to happen and it is most likely they will react insignificantly to what has been said, shrugging it off as general knowledge. Tell someone they are likely to be facing a potential threat and observe how you have their full attention.

It is an unfortunate truth that pessimism carries an irresistible weight on people’s actions and behaviors in a way that optimism can only wish to carry. Reading (or elsewhere consuming) that the world is doomed and that it is far too late to change for the better, is far more eye-catching than reading about how things will become greater with time, even if the optimistic point of view is the more accurate one. One reason for this is that pessimism and critical thinking are so close to each other that it can be hard to tell the difference between them. Whereas optimism and overselling an idea, on the other hand, can be difficult to distinguish between, especially in corporate life. This is why we are more focused on things like inflations and recessions rather than the huge decrease in HIV mortality rates, when reading news headlines. To some extent it makes sense. Daniel Kahneman, author of: Thinking fast and slow, wrote: “Organisms that treat threats more urgently than opportunities have a better chance to survive and reproduce.” It is in our genes. We are genetically made to treat threats more seriously than opportunities, this is our survival instinct. 

“For reasons I never understood, people like to hear that the world is going to hell” – Historian Deirde McCloskey. 

We are all aware of the recession that happened during 2008 and can agree that 2008 might not have been the best year for the economy. International stock markets crashed and unemployment rates were rapidly increasing. Once the economy hit rock bottom and it seemed like things could not go downhill anymore, The Wall Street Journal published the following article:

“Around the end of June 2010, or early July, (Panarin) says,  the U.S. will break into six pieces – with Alaska reverting to Russian control … California will form the Nucleus of what he calls “the Californian Republic,” and will be part of China or under Chinese influence. Texas will be the heart of “The Texas Republican,” a cluster of states will go to Mexico or fall under Mexican influence. Washington, D.C., and New York will be part of “Atlantic America” that may join the European Union. Canada will grab a group of Northern states Prof. Panarin calls “The Central North American Republic.” Hawaii, he suggests, will be a protectorate of Japan or China, and Alaska will be subsumed into Russia.” 

This article was published on the front page of the biggest influential finance newspaper worldwide. It is normal to be pessimistic about the economy, history has proven that many catastrophes happen financially all the time.  The thing that makes Panarin´s article so eye opening is the fact that it explained one of the worst possible scenarios for the U.S. to happen then, but if this article was as bizarre but on the optimistic side, it would not have been taken with the same seriousness. It is a fact that pessimism carries more weight than optimism, it comes off more intelligent and credible. The news media industry thrives on negativity, it creates thousands of careers for journalists and they know exactly what their readers feed on. When thinking about the amount of progress the human race could make during one lifetime, it would make sense to think optimistically, but still we are drawn like flies to honey to any and all negativity. It is in our nature. 

We have always and will alway be genetically wired to be more pessimistic to avoid any threats to our survival, it is within us. We do however have a choice to be logical about it and use it to our advantage if we can outweigh it with our optimism. Optimism is a choice and it takes a sense of dedication, but it will surely pay off at the end of the day. 


The subconscious pull within groups of people. 

In the book “the concise laws of human nature”  by Robert Greene, he discusses in the 14th chapter “the law of conformity – Resist the downward pull of the group.” In this chapter he explains the effects that group dynamics have on us and the subconscious force that takes over when we are in large groups, either positively (for example in a concert audience where everyone has the same taste in music) or negatively to the same extent. He explains the social behavior of an individual and how we start imitating and mirroring other´s behavior in group settings, without even realizing it.We tend to change our thinking to a way that makes us fit in through taking the path of least resistance, therefore trying to constantly adapt our thinking to the specific group setting we find ourselves in. The group setting even plays a role in our emotions and feelings, there can be a collective mood shift happening within a group. We wear our social masks whenever we find ourselves in group dynamics, there is nothing wrong with this, it is wired into us and it is part of who we are as humans. This can lead us to act more recklessly or irrationally if the rest of the group does so. Our mask can dominate our true selves in these situations. This can result in a decrease in our uniqueness and sometimes even lead to a point where we don´t think for ourselves. These changes all happen automatically, without our conscious realization. The only way to find it and to keep our individuality is to become aware of it. This requires a higher sense of self-awareness and a superior understanding of what is happening within a group dynamic. With a higher level of awareness, we can still use our social masks where it is needed, but we do not have to lose sense of our true selves in the process. We can use our masks to fit in but our higher awareness can help us to keep our individuality. We can become “superior social actors,” fitting in while keeping our rationality. This can be of utter importance especially when we find ourselves in  groups that are thriving on negativity and people that tend to pull us downwards, either knowingly or unknowingly. It can help us to stay positive and rational in a world that is thriving on pessimism. 


“Pessimism reduces expectations, narrowing the gap between possible outcomes and outcomes you feel great about. Maybe that’s why it’s so seductive. Expecting things to be bad is the best way to be pleasantly surprised when they’re not. Which, ironically, is something to be optimistic about.” – Morgan Housel


Greene, R. Book: The concise laws of human nature. 2018. Read on 5.12.2022. 

Housel, M. Book: The psychology of Money. 2020. Read on 5.1.2023. 

Housel, M. 2017. The seduction of pessimism. Read on 28.6.2023. https://collabfund.com/blog/the-seduction-of-pessimism/ 

Patel, H. 2023. Read on 28.6.2023. https://medium.com/@harshppatel7/seeing-the-glass-half-empty-the-seduction-of-pessimism-81bd241e0b61 

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