Public Release: 

Study says pessimists can overcome negative bias in some cases

Ohio State University

If your performance is being judged by a boss or teacher who tends to be pessimistic, make sure you have his or her full attention.

A new study suggests that pessimists can temper their negative outlook when judging others - but only if their mind is focused on the task and not distracted with other thoughts.

Pessimistic people are often aware of their negativity and can correct for that bias if they have the mental resources available when making a judgment," said Gifford Weary, co-author of the study and a professor of psychology at Ohio State University. The study appears in the January 2001 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

Weary and her colleagues asked 194 college students to watch videotapes of an 11-year-old boy performing moderately difficult tasks from an intelligence test. The task involved arranging pieces of a puzzle. The subjects were then asked to rate the boy's performance on the task and his overall intelligence.

Subjects in the study were also given a test to measure their overall tendencies towards pessimism or optimism.

The results showed that pessimists judged the boy as less intelligent than did optimists under one condition: if they were asked to memorize an eight-digit number before watching the videotape - a number they would have to recall after the viewing.

However, pessimists and optimists gave the boy similar intelligence ratings if they were not given any number to memorize.

Weary said that when pessimists were asked to memorize the number, their minds were busy when watching the videotape. The result is that their natural tendencies toward pessimism unconsciously altered their perceptions of how well the boy performed on the intelligence test. This, in turn, affected how they rated the boy's intelligence.

However, those who didn't have to memorize the number could focus solely on watching the boy's performance and compensate for their natural negativity.

"Our results suggest pessimists know they are more negative than others and try to eliminate that bias if they have the mental resources," Weary said. "When they watch the videotape, they expect a bad performance. When that doesn't happen, they are surprised - and that causes them to adjust their judgment to be more fair."

This finding contradicts some theories that suggest people don't alter their initial impressions of a person's behavior.

"We believe people can actually correct for their own biases," she said. "People can reconsider what they observed and recode it in their memory. Pessimists may begin watching the videotape with the expectation that the boy is not going to do well. But if they have the metal resources, they can change that initial impression and decide the boy did well on the test."

Weary said the results have many real-world applications. "If you work in a high-stress, fast-paced office, it may be difficult to get a fair evaluation if your supervisor tends to be pessimistic and depressed," she said.

Even if your supervisor is not a pessimist, Weary added, you still might be at risk for an overly harsh evaluation. One not-so-favorable piece of information about your work could become the basis for a negative evaluation if your supervisor doesn't have time to think about other aspects of your job performance.

"In such a setting, a supervisor may have a hard time correcting his or her unconscious negativity when evaluating employees' performances," she said. "The social and economic costs for employees of such judgments may well be very real and very significant."

The best advice is to make sure your supervisor is not distracted or hurried when he or she is evaluating your work, she said.

Weary conducted the study with Darcy Reich and Stephanie Tobin, both graduate students at Ohio State. The study was supported in part by grants from the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Mental Health.

Contact: Gifford Weary, 614-292-7456;
Written by Jeff Grabmeier, 614-292-8457;

Disclaimer: AAAS and EurekAlert! are not responsible for the accuracy of news releases posted to EurekAlert! by contributing institutions or for the use of any information through the EurekAlert system.