Sep. 26, 1998 Writer: Cathy Keen, email@example.com
Source: Kevin Taylor, (352) 392-0601
GAINESVILLE, Fla. --- Concerned what you may learn from the stock market or the visit to the doctor?
The good news about bad news is that most people brace for rotten consequences by expecting the outcome to be worse than it actually is, a new University of Florida study shows.
"We found that people seem to be pessimistically biased at the moment of truth, perhaps to reduce the sting of bad news that otherwise would come as a shock," said James Shepperd, a UF psychology professor who did the study, published in the September issue of the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
In the study of 68 UF psychology students, half were told they would be tested for a fictitious medical condition called "TAA deficiency" that could lead to a gradual deterioration of the pancreas and serious medical complications.
Participants learned the presence or absence of TAA could be detected by a saliva test. Half were told they would be tested right away, while the other half were told they would never be tested, said Kevin Taylor, a UF psychology graduate student who did the research with Shepperd.
The students also estimated their likelihood of having TAA on a nine-point scale and on a percentage basis. Those who expected the test to show they had the medical problem were most inclined to gird for the worst, Taylor said. Participants felt less threatened if they thought they would not receive their test results for several weeks, he said.
Although the research focused on an event with health consequences, Taylor said he anticipates people would display the same pattern in predicting any outcome with important personal implications. "We suspect, for example, that people awaiting a mechanic's bill following extensive repair work on their automobile are inclined to revise their estimates, predicting a higher bill in the moments just prior to receiving the bill," he said.
The finding that people brace for the worst is intriguing in light of other research showing that generally people show an overwhelming tendency to be optimistic about the future, he said.
People's tendency to err on the side of optimism in their personal predictions likely reflects a desire to view themselves as better than average, Shepperd said. Studies have shown that people generally rate themselves higher than the average person on desirable characteristics, such as intelligence, attractiveness and friendliness, and lower on undesirable ones, he said.
But the desire to be better than average seems to be couched in a desire to avoid disappointment as well, as seen by people's inclination to expect the worst at the moment of truth, he said.
People don't brace for bad news indiscriminantly, though; only for events with severe consequences, Shepperd said.
"If I'm waiting in the hospital for the doctor to tell me if I have cancer or HIV, I'm going to brace because news of the diagnosis represents a loss to me, the loss of my good health," he said. "On the other hand, if I'm sitting by the TV waiting for the Powerball number to see if I won $250 million, I'm not going to brace because losing doesn't represent a loss. My life is no different if I lose today than it was yesterday."
Anxiety over imminent medical news may bode poorly in some cases for home testing, be it AIDS, pregnancy or some other condition, Shepperd said. To avoid bad news, some people may decide not to test at all, just as some people who know they may carry a genetically transmitted disease, which can be tested for, may choose not to find out, he said.
On the flip side, some people go to the opposite extreme, responding as if they were in danger when they might not be, Shepperd said.
"There have been women with family histories of breast cancer who have gone ahead and had their breasts removed even though they had never tested positive for breast cancer," he said. "That's a pretty dramatic example of bracing."
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