The Sobering Up Effect: Why People Get More Pessimistic As The Moment of Truth Gets Closer

When the chips are about to fall, mentally we brace ourselves.

When the chips are about to fall, mentally we brace ourselves.

What do you feel right at the start of a long-term project that you’re involved with—whether at work, school or home?

Enthusiasm? Energy? Optimism?

Then as the deadline/big day/launch/test/whatever-it-is approaches, the shine starts to come off, doesn’t it?

Happy, open-hearted optimism about how it’ll turn out tends to give way to pessimism, cynicism and downright despair.

If you’ve experienced something like this then you’re not alone. This emotional slide or ‘sobering up effect’ has been documented in all kinds of areas (studies mentioned in Sweeny & Krizan, 2012):

  • Results of medical tests: people who took a medical test were more optimistic when the results were four weeks away than a few minutes away.
  • Performance in an exam: people think their exam marks will be higher when asked one month before the results compared with 50 minutes before getting their grades.
  • Driving test expectations: people are more pessimistic about their own driving skills when told they have to take a test to prove it right away.
  • Corporate earnings forecasts: when analysts predict how much money a company is going to make, they become less optimistic the closer the release of the actual results.

And it turns out that the more important the outcome is to us, the stronger the sobering up effect.

So, how come people dampen down their expectations and optimism about an outcome as the moment of truth approaches? According to Sweeny and Krizan, there are four main reasons:

  1. Controlling the emotions: people manage how they will feel about an outcome by changing their expectations. It feels better if the outcome exceeds your expectations. An ‘A’ grade is more enjoyable if you expected a ‘C’ than if you knew it was going to be an ‘A’. The same is true of disappointing results.
  2. It’s out of my hands: once the test is taken or project completed; control over the outcome is gone. Although people have no control over the outcome, they can still control their own expectations of the outcome. Managing personal expectations is another way of exerting control over the situation.
  3. From abstract to concrete thinking: when outcomes are way off in the future, people tend to think more abstractly and, therefore, more optimistically about them. When they are closer, they see all the things that could go wrong, and then they get more pessimistic.
  4. Now we’re accountable: as the outcome approaches, people worry that their predictions might be too optimistic. It seems better to be cautious to avoid looking foolish.

While many people are hardened optimists—indeed humans as a species show a bias towards being optimistic—as the moment of truth approaches, most of us become pessimists.

That’s because, as Thomas Hardy put it:

“Pessimism is, in brief, playing the sure game. You cannot lose at it; you may gain. It is the only view of life in which you can never be disappointed. Having reckoned what to do in the worst possible circumstances, when better arise, as they may, life becomes child’s play.”

And there’s no time we need a ‘sure game’ more than when the chips are about to fall.

Image credit: Shandi-lee

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This site is all about scientific research into how the mind works.

It’s mostly written by psychologist and author, Dr Jeremy Dean.

I try to dig up fascinating studies that tell us something about what it means to be human.

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Author: Jeremy Dean

Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology. He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book "Making Habits, Breaking Habits" (Da Capo, 2013) and several ebooks.