Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Are You a Positive or a Negative Optimist?

Negoptimists try to make things better by attending to problems.

Key points

  • Positive optimists keep eyes on the prize while negative optimists attend to what keeps us from getting there.
  • Positive optimism leads to virtue-signaling, magical thinking, and utopianism.
  • To positive optimists, negative optimists seem pessimistic, cynical, and nihilistic.
  • Negative optimists are doubt-tolerant ironists, striving for improvement knowing they could fail.

A positive optimist promotes a vision of a better future to motivate people to strive for it. A negative optimist also hopes for a better future but focuses on what keeps us from achieving it.

Criminologists are negative optimists (negoptimists). Hoping to to make society safer, they focus on criminal behavior. Oncologists are also negative optimists—hoping for their patients’ longevity, they study cancers that keep their patients from achieving it. On practical matters like crime and cancer, negoptimism prevails.

In politics, religion, and spirituality, it’s a mix, with plenty of positive optimists (posoptimists) promoting their vision of the better world. They keep their eyes on the prize, sometimes a utopian vision of an ideal world, heaven hereafter, some Communist or MAGA ideal. Sometimes the ideal is nostalgic (America great again) or a great returning to how we were meant to live in harmony. Sometimes it's a story of inevitable progress toward some inevitable ideal.

To posoptimists, negoptimism just seems like pessimism. “Don’t be negative. Don’t fight what’s bad; focus on what’s good. Give people a vision of a better future. Focusing on what doesn’t work just discourages people.” Positive optimism carrots, no sticks. Focusing on what doesn’t work discourages people especially when it involves what isn’t working about their behavior. You can mobilize more people with a positive vision that they can identify with.

At the extreme, it becomes the argument that it’s immoral to criticize people: Shame on anyone who judges. You’ll only turn people off if you suggest that they’re doing something that could be an impediment to progress. You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. Don’t scare people about climate change. Instead, inspire people with a vision of a low-carbon future.

To the political or religious posoptimist, negoptimists aren’t just pessimists; they’re immoral cynical nihilist narcissists. They’re just congratulating themselves on their defeatist superiority, pretending they’re wise enough to realize that the situation is hopeless. It’s a cheap thrill. You don’t have to do anything about the problems.

Of course, there are people like that. People find affirmation in whatever beliefs they claim. Some will feel proud of their cynical pessimism.

But that’s not how the negoptimists see it. They’re optimistic, but they’re trying to be realistic about what it will take to make progress. You’re not going to call a seismologist a pessimist for focusing on the risk of earthquakes.

“Posoptimist” is a double positive (positive plus optimist. “Negoptimist” is a negative and a positive. (negative plus optimist). Ask any oncologist: It takes more work to stay positive when you’re dealing with life’s negatives. You have to have a way to deal with the disappointments without getting cynical. One way is to be realistic about what you’re up against. You don’t see oncologists or criminologists fretting and fuming about the existence of cancer and crime. They’re post-angst and post-outrage. They don’t rail against reality or demand to talk to the universe’s manager.

Instead, they adopt an adaptive ironic attitude which is not to be confused with a cynical one. An ironic attitude recognizes that no matter how you try, there will be ironic situations defined as good bets going bad and bad bets going good. They’re trying to make things better. It’s iffy guesswork.

Irony can sound like it’s only about taking things lightly, but that’s not what it’s about. It recognizes the inescapable tragicomic nature of life. Life is both dire and slapstick. Slipping on a banana peel can kill you. I suggest the better term would be “dirony”, Dire irony.

Not so for posoptimists. We shall overcome. Visualize world peace. Hope is the ultimate virtue. With hope there’s nothing you can’t do! Keep your eyes on the prize and we can show you the path to it!

And they’re right. You do catch more flies with honey than vinegar. The appeal of positive optimism far outweighs the appeal of negoptimism. The appeal might shift in the coming years if problems continue to worsen. If sea levels rise and millions are dying, it would be harder to stay posoptimistic. Maybe the appeal will shift to cynical nihilism or a different kind of posoptimism also extremely popular. This world is a mess, but this world isn’t the point. It’s a test for getting into a utopia in the afterlife.

Hope springs eternal. People are great at staying positive, especially about themselves. After all, generic hope sounds like a virtue, but notice that the worst people in world history were hopeful. They hoped that they would prevail with their utopian vision however crazy and world-damaging. You have to be careful where you point that word. Hope for what? Mostly hope that things will work out the way we want.

That’s some of the appeal of posoptimism. Positive about your positive vision, you can virtue-signal that you’re on the side of good. It’s motivating but toward what? Mostly toward grandstanding about one’s virtue. The worst movements in world history were all posoptimistic in their public presentation. They were often populated by people who were cynical nihilists in private. They got the benefit of grandstanding about their virtue in public while, in private, laughing about the suckers who believe in virtue.

A negoptimist recognizes the value of both carrots and sticks. They alternate between posoptimistic “fake it till you make it” and the negoptimistic “face it till you make it". A forensic psychologist I know will tell a sex offender that he can change and then testify in court that he is unlikely to change. Carrots and sticks. Careful guesswork about what’s changeable and what isn’t, but still iffy guesswork because they don’t claim to have the surefire formula.

This article as a video with a debate between a positive and negative optimist at the end.

More from Jeremy E. Sherman Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today