Here is a thought experiment. If a film critic uncritically praises a film—for its story, cinematography, direction, or even its impact on society—their review is often relegated to the status of “paid review” . They are considered sycophants. A review, on the other hand, is generally not subject to the same biases: it is treated as an intelligent interpretation by the public, who may not even agree with the reviewer’s opinion.
“For reasons I’ve never understood, people love to hear the world is going to hell,” wrote economic historian Deirdre McCloskey. In other words, a modicum of criticism and cynicism is encouraged, if not outright considered a measure of competence.
Obviously, people are wired to perceive pessimists as smarter than others. “If you say the world has gotten better, you risk getting away with being called naive and insensitive. If you say the world is going to keep getting better, you’re considered an embarrassing lunatic. , on the other hand, you say disaster is imminent, you can expect a McArthur genius prize or even the Nobel Peace Prize,” noted Matt Ridley, a British science writer, in his book, The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves. For tangible and intangible reasons, people have come to associate negativity and despair with a higher degree of intellectual aptitude. How did it happen?
For starters, pessimistic statements—those that are shrouded in doom and gloom—are more successful in grabbing people’s attention than optimistic statements. Quoting Morgan Housel’s book, The psychology of money, an article on CNBC, benchmarks, “’If a smart person tells me a stock pick is going to grow 10x next year, I’ll immediately dismiss it as nonsense; but, if someone… full of nonsense tells me that a stock I own is about to crash due to accounting fraud, I will clear my calendar and listen to their every word.
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The reason for the appeal of pessimism here is that it is framed as a call to action. “Rethink your choices! “Sell your shares! “Act now, or you’ll regret it later!” Optimism, on the other hand, largely tells people to stay the course – a statement that’s much easier to put on the back of their heads during their daily hustle and bustle. Optimism does not seem urgent, in general. It does not tell people that something needs their immediate attention. So, pessimists seem like society’s change-makers who are constantly making things happen, while optimists seem like individuals who are just happy and content to stay the course.
Additionally, optimists appear gullible – seemingly unreasonable in clinging to their hope. The positivity that defines optimism may seem superficial; as such it may look like a “sales pitch”; after getting a dozen calls a day from credit companies, it’s something we’re used to ignoring. Pessimism, however, sounds like both smart and thoughtful advice.
Quoting Housel again, the CNBC article says: “[I]Imagine someone writing this in the late 1940s after Japan was gutted in World War II and the future looked bleak. ‘Look today, it looks bad, but it won’t be like this forever. In our lifetime, our economy will grow 15 times pre-war levels. Our life expectancy will double. Our stock markets are going to rock. Unemployment will not cross 6 percent for decades. We will become world leaders in electronic innovation. We will become so rich that we will own a good part of Manhattan, and yes, America will be among our closest allies. Sounds ridiculous, right? But that’s exactly how it happened. »
A corollary to this is also that pessimism is deeply connected to the present and the tangible. Cynical people are cynical because they see and hear the realities of our world, which are harsh, even morbid. As reflected in an article on Psychology Today, there is a perception – perhaps rooted in reality – that greater intelligence brings greater awareness of the complexities involved in a given situation; basically, this pessimism is simply an identifier of an intelligent mind. As Charles Darwin, renowned for his theory of evolution, once said, “Ignorance breeds confidence more often than knowledge.”
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Because they seem rather oblivious to the risks a pessimist would be quick to point out, optimists can end up appearing less intelligent by default, leading people to place less weight on their opinions. “I realized…why pessimism seems smart: Optimism often requires belief in unknown, unspecified future breakthroughs – which sounds fanciful and naive. If you stick very soberly, wisely, cautiously to the known and the proven, you are bound to be pessimistic,” noted an article on The Roots of Progress.
Another reason behind the appeal of pessimism is evolutionary – we may have evolved to make it more appealing. We’ve evolved to expect the worst, says Martin Seligman, a psychologist and former president of the American Psychological Association. Speaking to GQ in 2018, Seligman said, “Species that [was] crossing the ice ages had been bred and selected out of pessimism. The mentality that said, “It’s a beautiful day in San Diego today, I bet it will be sunny tomorrow” has been crushed by the ice… So what comes naturally to people is pessimism.
Seligman’s explanation suggests that we are perhaps almost hard-wired to find optimism – which apparently cost our ancestors their lives – less cautious than its brooding cousin, pessimism.
It is therefore not surprising that opinions such as “optimism, like imagination, is childish in the best sense of the word” or “I have never met an intelligent optimist” exist on the Internet. This is not proof that pessimists are necessarily smarter than optimists; it merely attests to our perception of their relative degrees of intelligence.