Saving the Best for Last - In Praise of Pessimism

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In Praise of Pessimism

"We don't want any negativity here," said the senior manager of a big government department. What, I thought, as I sat in the audience, not even a doubt? I could see his point: at a time of change, he wanted his colleagues to be receptive to new ideas and prepared to take risks. However, he made the assumption that positive thinking is always good and negative thinking (pessimism if you like) is always bad. Is this necessarily so? Are we supposed to receive every proposal of managements and governments with enthusiasm? If the Prime Minister says "Let's invade Iraq," or wherever, are his advisers supposed to say " Of course we can do that, sir"?

Surely there is a place for someone who will say ‘No, Prime Minister", or at least "Let's look at this and see what the problems are before we commit ourselves." Although this is where pessimists come in useful, they are always unpopular. After all, if you are planning a barbeque, you don't want people telling you that it's bound to rain. Because no-one wants to listen to those negative messages, pessimists are often ignored. Look at poor Cassandra. When she told her father Priam that the Greeks were coming, he dismissed her as a nuisance. Cassandra was right but it didn't prevent her being raped and enslaved.

So why are some people pessimists, if it's such an unpopular thing to be? That question opens the whole nature and nurture debate. Some psychologists will say that pessimists must have endured some trauma or loss as children. That is difficult to prove, or disprove, because everybody can think of something that went wrong in their childhood. On the other hand, some scientists argue that there are differences in brain function and we are born to be either pessimists or optimists.

If this is the case, you might expect pessimism to die out. The fact that it's still around suggests that it might have an evolutionary role and you can see what this might be. Imagine a tribe of early humans looking for food. The brave hunter says "There's a herd of mammoths coming through. Let's go and kill some and we'll have enough food for a long time." The pessimist counters "There aren't enough of us to tackle a herd of mammoths. They'll just trample us." If the tribesmen listen to the optimist, some of their number will be killed or injured. If they listen to the pessimist, maybe someone will come up with a better suggestion, like pursuing the mammoths with torches to the edge of a cliff. The pessimist has played his role: that of warning of danger.

I'm not suggesting that pessimists should rule. They are prone to be over-cautious, wary of taking risks and good at missing opportunities that are dangled beneath their noses. What I would like to see is a rational approach to risk assessment. When a new government comes to power, it should check its policies to see not only what benefits they offer but also what risks they pose. They can choose the policy that offers the best balance of benefits over risks.

It would be difficult to sell that idea to an incoming government, though. They want to be able to say to the electorate "We promise change and exciting new opportunities", not "We promise a rational approach to risk assessment." So you need, somewhere in the machinery of government, a few professional pessimists, men or women in grey, who will stand up and say "Prime Minister, have you considered the risks?" They may get sacked for their trouble, or even shot but, being pessimists, they will have considered that possibility. You need courage to be a true pessimist: the courage to say no. So we ought to be grateful to pessimists; we don't often hear their names, but they may have saved us from disaster.

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