Just how do some people appear calm all the time and seem to succeed effortlessly? This is a question Adam Grant tackles in his book Originals. His research has it that it doesn’t come easy to them. It is because behind-the-scenes, they work hard at it and choose to be pessimists even if they’re born optimists. Apparently, it helps them navigate worst-case-scenarios optimists may overlook.
“Psychologist Julie Norem studies two different strategies for handling these challenges: strategic optimism and defensive pessimism,” he writes. “Strategic optimists anticipate the best, staying calm and setting high expectations. Defensive pessimists expect the worst, feeling anxious and imagining all the things that can go wrong. If you’re a defensive pessimist, about a week before a big speech you convince yourself that you’re doomed to fail. And it won’t be just ordinary failure: You’ll trip on stage and then forget all your lines.
“Most people assume it’s better to be a strategic optimist than a defensive pessimist. Yet Norem finds that although defensive pessimists are more anxious and less confident in analytical, verbal, and creative tasks, they perform just as well as strategic optimists. ‘At first, I asked how these people were able to do so well despite their pessimism,’ Norem writes. ‘Before long, I began to realize that they were doing so well because of their pessimism.’...
“‘Defensive pessimism is a strategy used in specific situations to manage anxiety, fear, and worry,’ Norem explains. When self-doubts creep in, defensive pessimists don’t allow themselves to be crippled by fear. They deliberately imagine a disaster scenario to intensify their anxiety and convert it into motivation. Once they’ve considered the worst, they’re driven to avoid it, considering every relevant detail to make sure they don’t crash and burn, which enables them to feel a sense of control. Their anxiety reaches its zenith before the event, so that when it arrives, they’re ready to succeed. Their confidence springs not from ignorance or delusions about the difficulties ahead, but from a realistic appraisal and an exhaustive plan. When they don’t feel anxious, they become complacent; when encouraged, they become discouraged from planning. If you want to sabotage the performance of chronic defensive pessimists, just make them happy.”
In this issue
- The best and worst case scenarios for Omicron
- Governments pick the wrong battles
- Feeling understood
The best and worst case scenarios for Omicron
In an interview with Govindraj Ethiraj, Dr K. Srinath Reddy, president of the Public Health Foundation of India, spells out the best and worst case scenarios for the new variant of coronavirus.
Reddy says, “The best case scenario is that this particular virus is signalling a change towards lower virulence and higher infectivity, which may actually mean that it is on the way to becoming as innocuous as a common cold virus. I'm not saying that it has happened yet, but it could be on that pathway. So in a sense, if this continues in this manner, or continues to mutate to a more infectious but less virulent form further on, then we may actually end up with something like a live attenuated virus vaccine. Even if it infects [us], we'll get immunity and some discomfort, but not lethal disease. That is how it may end up in the best case scenario.
“But in the worst case scenario, if it has markedly increased infectivity, immune evasion or immune escape—both to the vaccines and to the natural infection—and also has virulence maintained at the same level as Delta, then we are in for serious trouble.”
To another question on how countries have upped their guard against this variant, he uses an interesting analogy from cricket. “It's like you're facing a new bowler for the first time and you have not had much experience of watching him even in international cricket. So you play defence for a while before you understand his style of play, and then only you open up. So you have to be ultra cautious in the initial stages. And that's what I suppose governments are doing.”
Governments pick the wrong battles
A compelling argument by the science writer Matt Ridley that governments haven’t figured out how to fight Covid-19 had us hooked. “This pandemic has mocked public-health experts. They told us to wash our hands and then realised it was spreading through the air. They told us masks were useless and then made them mandatory. They sent Covid cases to ordinary hospitals where they infected patients,” he begins to place things in perspective.
He then goes on to point out scientific literature in the public domain. “In the 1918 flu pandemic or the ‘Russian flu’ of 1889-90 (which some biologists think was a coronavirus), there were two waves of deaths, then the pathogen settled down to be endemic and mild. I fear—though of course I might be wrong—that our policies this time have saved lives at first but delayed a similar taming of the virus. Evolution is not just mutation: it’s mutation plus selection caused by competition between strains for susceptible hosts.”
Having said that, he goes on to slam governments across the world for overreacting by resorting to actions such as shutting down borders despite evidence that such measures don’t help. “Like Cassandra we are cursed to see the truth, but not be able to act on it.”
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