Pessimist Nation

Slate readers testify to the power of negative thinking.

Who knew? People are in love with the idea of seeing a killjoy sociologist from New Jersey on Oprah.

A couple of weeks back, we wrote a letter to Oprah asking her to make amends for promoting The Secret, the self-help craze that says the universe takes orders from our thoughts. We advised her to clear a slot on her show for Karen Cerulo, a Rutgers University professor whose latest book, Never Saw It Coming, presents a nitty-gritty study of our national addiction to wishful thinking. And then we asked Slatereaders to help our cause by testifying to the power of pessimism—or at least to the wisdom of preparing for the worst. We could not have envisioned a more positive response.

Hundreds of e-mails poured in from all over the world: On the virtues of contingency planning, we heard from an NPR producer in Baghdad, an outdoorsman in Oregon, a civil engineer in Pennsylvania, and a filmmaker on Long Island, N.Y. From a game designer in California, we heard about an online simulation called World Without Oil that harnesses the intelligence of thousands of players to help imagine and prepare for an oil shock. And from scores of sensible, regular folks, we received assurance that our cultural DNA is not all Pollyanna genes. Dozens of people advocated the timeworn motto, “Hope for the best and plan for the worst.” And several others referred us to a piece of ancient wisdom “found in texts with yellowed pages and brittle covers,” as one person put it. The wisdom: “Be prepared,” from The Boy Scout Handbook.

All that said, most of our testimonials came from recovering Polyannas. A few readers professed that our letter to Oprah brought about a kind of conversion experience. “As an eternal optimist, I never ever envision negative thoughts,” writes Leigh. “I see myself all over your article and realize that I am completely unprepared for the rest of my life (including my funeral). Oprah I agree with Slate! Please have Karen Cerulo on your show to discuss her book!” But probably the greatest portion of the testimonials came from people who recognized the limits of positive thinking too late.

Under the subject line “How too much optimism ruined me financially,” a reader named Erik described his heavy investment in booming tech stocks throughout the 1990s. “I thought I was an absolute genius,” he writes, “even though I read a lot of dire warnings that tech was vastly overvalued.” Here’s the saddest part: “In 1998, my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer and ultimately didn’t make [it], dying at the beginning of 2000. I received $150,000 in life insurance money, and immediately invested it in tech.” A few months later, Erik lost nearly all of the money, which he had hoped would pay for his retirement and college for his granddaughter.

We received a ton of e-mails like this one, from Lane: “Had I been of a more realistic mindset, I may not have assumed that I would be married forever (I wasn’t), that my husband would be faithful (he wasn’t), that he would pay his child support (he doesn’t), etc, etc, etc. Twenty years after getting married (and 5 after getting divorced), while not overly suspicious, I’m now always on the lookout for reality!”

Several New Orleanians took us to task for discussing pitfalls of wishful thinking without ever mentioning Hurricane Katrina. (As a born Cajun with family in the flood zone, my apologies.) “An ongoing alarmist attitude in Louisiana about inadequate/never-repaired levees could have gone a long way to preventing flooding,” writes Soph. And Susan reports that her 79-year-old father’s pre-storm optimism nearly killed him. “He had planned to stay home and ride it out,” she says, “figuring we had made it through Hurricane Betsy in 1965 when our home received 6 feet of water, and he had every faith that our government had provided adequate protection with the levee systems they had built since then.” At the last minute, Susan and her sister persuaded their father to evacuate. When Katrina passed, she says, “his neighborhood was flooded with enough water to cover his entire house, completely over the roof.”

While a huge number of the testimonials we received recounted tales of positive thinking gone (or nearly gone) awry, others gave a touching portrait of all the professional negative thinkers who work behind the scenes.

Patti, an air-traffic controller, theorizes that only people in an affluent, technologically advanced society, packed with fail-safes and conveniences, could be so susceptible to The Secret’s brand of hubris. “Things usually work out for the best,” she writes, “but only because someone somewhere is working hard to make it so. In my profession as an air traffic controller this is true every day. You expect and prepare for the worst and use all of your skills to keep it from happening; but when the worst happens, those controllers that imagined dire scenarios and possible solutions perform better than those that did not.”

Thaddeus, a farming consultant from Minnesota, writes that American farmers are congenital gloomy Guses, constantly wringing their hands over weather, blight, and commodity prices. “The result of all this negative thinking,” Thaddeus writes, “is the most stable, secure and inexpensive food supply in the history of the world. Farmers worry about dry weather, so they install irrigation systems. They worry about wet weather, so they install tile lines to drain their fields. They worry about diseases, so they vaccinate their cattle and spray fungicides on their crops. They worry about cold winters, so they cut hay and silage for their livestock.”

Jeffrey, an intelligence analyst in Baghdad, writes: “I am paid a very low salary to dodge mortars and predict how our enemies are going to try to defeat us.” This may be “one of the ultimate examples of negative thinking,” he writes. “And believe me, taking on the mindset of some of our enemies here is a horrible way to spend an evening. But it is critical to keeping the soldiers out there on the streets alive, to protecting the Iraqi people.”

Timothy, an experimental nuclear physicist in North Carolina, waxes poetic about the armies of contingency planners in his line of work. “Some of my colleagues are employed solely to envision novel disastrous scenarios, spending their entire working lives imagining the worst,” he writes. “Across this land, an army of pessimists—chemical pessimists, medical pessimists, nuclear pessimists, electrical pessimists, political and military pessimists, environmental and biological pessimists, computer pessimists, consumer safety pessimists, economic and financial pessimists—stand guard over America’s babies.  And at the end of our shifts, we have a couple of beers.”

And finally, from a mother named Kris, we received a kind of domestic manifesto of negative—or maybe just humble—thinking.

“We bite our tongues rather than starting arguments that aren’t worth having,” she writes. “We assume a home-improvement project will take longer and cost more than our more optimistic estimates. We pay our insurance premiums, live in affordable homes and happily buy off-label clothes. Negativity is said to be about fear, and the positive thinking camp seems to consider fear a universal evil. But here on the Negative Side, there’s such a thing as healthy fear. It’s what keeps us from taking out sub-prime mortgages and accumulating credit-card debt. It’s why we wear seatbelts and keep an emergency kit in the basement during tornado season. It’s what prompts us to get the brakes fixed and the septic tank pumped. It’s why we install smoke detectors, teach our kids how to get out of the house during a fire, get annual physicals. It’s not that we never visualize a desired outcome. We just don’t count on it.”

That’s the news from the negative side. We’ll be sending these and all the other reader testimonials to Oprah later this week.