Monday Mornings with Madison

Never Borrow Sorrow from Tomorrow

Last week, we discussed the many mental, physical and emotional benefits to anticipating positive life events.  From big events such as vacations to minor pleasures such as a nap, the anticipation of something positive is even more beneficial to a person than the actual vacation or nap.   As a business strategy, anticipation can give entrepreneurs and professionals ‘a leg up’ against competitors, psychologically stressing the competition.  It is a strategy used often in sports.  That is the up side of anticipation.

However, anticipating negative events, while equally impactful, is believed to be detrimental.  We give this kind of anticipation a name… it’s called worry.   Dating back thousands of years, philosophers have been pondering the concept of ‘anticipating problems’.  Seneca, the Roman essayist, philosopher and playwright, was quoted as saying “He who suffers before it is necessary suffers more than is necessary.”   Indeed, the general wisdom from philosophers and religious scholars is that worrying causes a person to experience a sense of dread needlessly while waiting for the bad thing to happen.

Yet there are some who have argued that there is a benefit to anticipating a negative event in that it can serve to decrease the negative emotions when the bad thing finally happens.  We can dub that the ‘soften the blow’ effect.  Anticipating problems and issues ahead of time can also help make them a little less frightening, and allows for planning to avoid or work around problems when they happen.  Moreover, worriers argue that even if the bad event doesn’t happen, there is additional joy that results from anticipating that something bad was going to happen and then finding that it did not happen.  So what is true?  Is anticipating trouble a positive or negative?  It depends.  Let’s look at the science to find the answer.

Passive Worrying Is Worthless

Although the novelist Thomas Hardy suggested that anticipating a negative outcome of the future was a ‘sure game’ and that it was helpful to ‘brace for the worst’, the evidence points to the contrary.  The findings of three recent studies conclude that worrying just doesn’t pay.   One study was done by Sarit A. Golub at Hunter College, CUNY.  One study was done by Daniel T. Gilbert at Harvard University.  The third study was done by Timothy D. Wilson at the University of Virginia.  Each study was different but all three measured whether the anticipation of a ‘bad event’ lessened the negative impact of the event once it happened or reaped any benefit.  The studies show that the concept of ‘softening the blow’ simply does not actually exist.

For the sake of brevity and space, I’ll only describe here one of the three studies.  In the study by Golub, two groups of participants were asked to complete a personality test consisting of 18 ambiguous questions and wait 10 minutes before receiving their results.  The first group, Alpha, consisted of 36 Harvard undergraduate students.  The second group, Beta, consisted of 39 Harvard undergraduate students.  All 75 participants were told the test would classify them as one of three personality types:  A – the best, B – intermediate, or C – the worst.  The participants were told that the test was reliable and valid when scored by a psychologist, but because that process was expensive and relatively time consuming, the experimenter was developing computer software that would quickly predict the psychologist’s classification.  The experimenter then said the tests would be scored by a psychologist in another room, but while this was happening, they would have the experimental computer program also analyze their answers and attempt to predict the psychologist’s personality classification.  (None of that was true.  The test was not valid nor was there any computer program.)  What was being measured was whether anticipating a bad outcome had any effect on how the person felt…. If expecting a bad outcome in fact ‘softened the blow.’

While waiting for the test results, the experimenter divided the participants in the Alpha and Beta groups (unbeknownst to them) into three subgroups.   Subgroup 1 was led to have positive expectations about the test results.  Subgroup 2 was led to have negative expectations about the results.  Subgroup 3 was not led to have any expectations.

Then the participants were told to press a key on the computer to see the computer’s prediction of the psychologist’s classification.  Subgroup 1, which had been led to have positive expectations, was told they were classified as follows:  91% were classified as A, 9% as B, and 1% as C.    Subgroup two, which had been led to expect a negative classification, was also classified as 91% A, 9% B, and 1% C.   Those in Subgroup three were not given any computer results.  Five minutes later, all the participants in the Alpha and Beta Groups (in all subgroups) were asked to indicate how happy and how disappointed they felt with the computer forecast on a scale of six answers that ranged from ‘not at all’ to ‘extremely.’

Five minutes later, the experimenter individually told each participant in the Alpha Group that he or she had been classified by the psychologist as Type C – the worst personality.  The experimenter also told each participant in the Beta Group that he or she had classified by the psychologist as Type A – the best personality.  Then all participants in both groups were asked (within 2 minutes) to complete the same happiness scales they had completed after the computer predictions.

To summarize the results, the participants in the Alpha Group (those told that they were Type C – worst personality type) who had been ‘set up’ to expect a bad classification as ‘forecast’ by the computer program had negative feelings about their classification before they were told about the psychologist’s C classification and felt equally bad after receiving the psychologist’s C classification.  Those who were expecting a positive A classification as ‘forecast’ by the computer program had positive feelings before the psychologist’s C classification and had negative feelings after receiving the psychologist’s C classification.  That makes sense.  But they felt no worse than those who had been anticipating the bad outcome.  Those who anticipated a negative result felt just as bad but no worse and no better than those who anticipated a good outcome.  The expectation did not ‘soften the blow’ but rather just extended how long they felt bad… before and after the negative classification.

All three studies basically reached the same conclusion.  There were no benefits from passively anticipating bad news.  Anticipating the negative did not lessen the impact of getting the bad news.  The person worrying simply experienced those bad feelings longer.

The Downside of Worrying

It turns out that worry – which basically boils down to feeling threatened whether it is real or anticipated — is what causes stress.   Worry sets off the “Fight or Flight” survival response within the human body, which triggers all sorts of physiological changes.

When stressed, the body’s systems important for immediate survival — such as blood pressure and heart rate to circulate more energy throughout the body – perk up while the ones not so important for immediate survival – such as our immune system or digestive systems – tone down.  These changes are meant to help us run away from, or fight off, an attack.  But if stress caused by passive worrying keeps us in that “Fight or Flight” mode for more than a couple weeks, this can cause a lot of health issues.  In fact, the health problems caused by chronic worrying or anticipating problems can be greater than the anticipated problems themselves.  Here are just a few.

  1. Persistently elevated blood pressure and heart rate raises the risk of cardiovascular disease.  This is the leading cause of death in the developed world.
  2. A depressed immune system makes it harder for the body to fight off diseases, such as cancer or battle them once sick.
  3. Stress reduces the protective fluids in the lining of the digestive system exacerbating the risk and severity of ulcers and other digestive disorders.
  4. Stress changes blood chemistry which — when persistent — raises the risk of diabetes.
  5. Changes in blood chemistry caused by chronic stress are associated tied to a greater likelihood of clinical depression.
  6. Chronic stress impairs the formation of new, fast-growing cells, like bone, and hair.
  7. Chronic stress reduces the ability to form new memories, and recall others. High stress can impair performance.

It is futile to agonize in advance about something which we cannot control or change.  It is literally the act of borrowing sorrow from tomorrow.  And it is a debt that charges a high interest rate on the body and mind, with little if any return.

So is the anticipation of all problems a waste?  No.  While passively worrying about possible problems can be harmful and has no benefits, anticipating issues in order to avoid the problem is an excellent management strategy.

Anticipating problems to formulate possible ways to handle those situations – such as anticipating a weather catastrophe in order to develop a Hurricane or Tornado Preparedness Plan– can diffuse the stress caused by anticipating the problem.  Knowing that there is an action plan in place helps relieve stress.

So, the next time you find yourself anticipating something negative – the results from a medical test or decision about a deal you’ve been after for months – consider the stress you are putting on your body.  Then ask yourself if there is any action you can take to address the situation.  If you can, do so.  If not, stop worrying.  You have everything to lose and nothing to gain by anticipating the worst.

Quote of the Week:

“Worry is the interest paid by those who borrow trouble.”
George Washington


© 2012, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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