Skip to main content Accessibility help

Comparative Pessimism or Optimism: Depressed Mood, Risk-Taking, Social Utility and Desirability

  • Isabelle Milhabet (a1), Emmanuelle Le Barbenchon (a2), Laurent Cambon (a1) and Guylaine Molina (a3)


Comparative optimism can be defined as a self-serving, asymmetric judgment of the future. It is often thought to be beneficial and socially accepted, whereas comparative pessimism is correlated with depression and socially rejected. Our goal was to examine the social acceptance of comparative optimism and the social rejection of comparative pessimism in two dimensions of social judgment, social desirability and social utility, considering the attributions of dysphoria and risk-taking potential (studies 2 and 3) on outlooks on the future. In three experiments, the participants assessed either one (study 1) or several (studies 2 and 3) fictional targets in two dimensions, social utility and social desirability. Targets exhibiting comparatively optimistic or pessimistic outlooks on the future were presented as non-depressed, depressed, or neither (control condition) (study 1); non-depressed or depressed (study 2); and non-depressed or in control condition (study 3). Two significant results were obtained: (1) social rejection of comparative pessimism in the social desirability dimension, which can be explained by its depressive feature; and (2) comparative optimism was socially accepted on the social utility dimension, which can be explained by the perception that comparatively optimistic individuals are potential risk-takers.


Corresponding author

*Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Isabelle Milhabet. Laboratoire d’Anthropologie et de Psychologie Cognitives et Sociales. Université de Nice-Sophia Antipolis. Pôle Universitaire Saint-Jean d’Angély. 24, Av. des Diables bleus. 06357. Nice Cedex 4. E-mail:


Hide All
Abele, A., & Hermer, P. (1993). Mood influences on health-related judgments: Appraisal of own health versus appraisal of unhealthy behaviors. European Journal of Social Psychology, 23, 613625.
Alloy, L. B., & Ahrens, A. H. (1987). Depression and pessimism for the future: Biased use of statistically relevant information in predictions for the self versus others. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52, 366378.
Alloy, L. B., Fedderly, S. S., Kennedy-Moore, E., & Cohan, C. L. (1998). Dysphoria and social interaction: An integration of behavioral confirmation and interpersonal perspectives. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 15661579.
Anderson, C., & Galinsky, A. D. (2006). Power, optimism, and risk-taking. European Journal of Social Psychology, 36, 511536.
Armor, D.-A., & Taylor, S.-E. (1998). Situated optimism: Specific outcome expectancies and self-regulation. In Zanna, M. P. (Ed.). Advances in experimental social psychology. (Vol. 30, pp. 309379). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.
Bougheas, S. (2002). Optimism, education and industrial development. Research in Economics, 2, 199214.
Cambon, L. (2006). Désirabilité sociale et utilité sociale: Deux dimensions de la valeur communiquée par les adjectifs de personnalité [Social desirability and social utility: Two evaluative dimensions of Personality Traits]. Revue Internationale de Psychologie Sociale/International Review of Social Psychology, 19, 125151.
Cambon, L., Djouary, A., & Beauvois, J. L. (2006). Social judgment norms and social utility: When it is more valuable to be useful than desirable. Swiss Journal of Psychology, 65, 167180.
Carver, C. S., Kus, L. A., & Scheier, M. F. (1994). Effects of good versus bad mood and optimistic versus pessimistic outlook on social acceptance versus rejection. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 13, 138151.
Chambers, J. R., & Windschitl, P. D. (2004). Biases in social comparative judgments: The role of nonmotivated factors in above-average and comparative-optimism effects. Psychological Bulletin, 130, 813838.
Colvin, C. R., Block, J., & Funder, D. C. (1995). Overly positive self-evaluations and personality: Negative implications for mental health. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 68, 11521162.
Dewberry, C., & Richardson, S. (1990). Effect of anxiety on optimism. Journal of Social Psychology, 130, 731738.
Dolbier, C. L., Soderstron, M., & Steinhardt, M. A. (2001). The relationships between self-leadership and enhanced psychological, health, and work outcomes. The Journal of Psychology, 135, 469485.
Dubois, N., & Beauvois, J.-L. (2005). Normativeness and individualism. European Journal of Social Psychology, 35, 123146.
Dubois, N., & Beauvois, J.-L. (2011). Are some rabbits more competent and warm than others? The lay epistemologist is interested in object value but not in descriptive parameters. Swiss Journal of Psychology, 70, 6373.
Furr, R. M., & Funder, D. C. (1998). A multi-modal analysis of personal negativity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 15801591.
Helson, H. (1964). Adaptation level theory. New York, NY: Harper & Row.
Helweg-Larsen, M., & Shepperd, J. A. (2001). Do moderators of the optimistic bias affect personal or target risk estimates? A review of the literature. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 5, 7495.
Helweg-Larsen, M., Sadeghian, P., & Webb, M. S. (2002). The stigma of being pessimistically biased. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 21, 92107.
Hickman, S. E., Watson, P. J., & Morris, R. J. (1996). Optimism, pessimism, and the complexity of narcissism. Personality and Individual Differences, 20, 521525.
House, R. J., & Shamir, B. (1998). Toward the integration of transformational, charismatic, and visionary theories. In Chemers, M. & Ayman, R. (Eds.), Leadership theory and research: Perspectives and directions (pp. 81107). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.
John, O. P., & Robins, R. W. (1994). Accuracy and bias in self-perception: Individual differences in self-enhancement and the role of narcissism. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 66, 206219.
Le Barbenchon, E., & Milhabet, I. (2005). L’optimisme: Réponse désirable et/ou socialement utile? [Optimism: A desirable and/or socially useful response?]. Revue Internationale de Psychologie Sociale/International Review of Social Psychology, 18, 153181.
Le Barbenchon, E., Milhabet, I., Steiner, D. D., & Priolo, D. (2008). Social acceptance of exhibiting optimism. Current Research in Social Psychology, 14, 5263.
Milhabet, I., Le Barbenchon, E., Molina, G., Cambon, L., & Steiner, D. D. (2012). Comparative optimism, so useful. International Review of Social Psychology, 25, 540.
Mussweiler, T. (2003). “Everything is relative”: Comparison processes in social judgment. European Journal of Social Psychology, 33, 719733.
Nunnally, J. C., & Bernstein, I. H. (1994). Psychometric theory (3 rd Ed). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
Peeters, G. (1971). The positive-negative asymmetry: On cognitive consistency and positivity bias. European Journal of Social Psychology, 1, 455474.
Peeters, G. (2002). From good and bad to can and must: Subjective necessity of acts associated with positively and negatively valued stimuli. European Journal of Social Psychology, 32, 125136.
Peeters, G., Czapinski, J., & Hoorens, V. (2001). Comparative optimism, pessimism and realism with respect to adverse events and their relationship with will to live. International Review of Social Psychology, 14, 143162.
Peretti-Watel, P. (2005). La culture du risque, ses marqueurs sociaux et ses paradoxes: Une exploration empirique [Risk culture, social bookmarking an dits paradoxes: An empirical exploration]. Revue Économique 56, 371392.
Pietromonaco, P. R., & Markus, H. (1985). The nature of negative thoughts in depression. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 48, 799807.
Preacher, K. J., & Hayes, A. F. (2008). Asymptotic and resampling methods for estimating and comparing indirect effects. Behavior Research Methods, 40, 879891.
Pyszczynski, T., & Greenberg, J. (1985). Depression and preference for self-focusing stimuli after success and failure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 49, 10661075.
Pyszczynski, T., & Greenberg, J. (1986). Evidence for a depressive self-focusing style. Journal of Research in Personality, 20, 95100.
Pyszczynski, T., & Greenberg, J. (1987). Self-regulatory perseveration and the depressive self-focusing style: A self-awareness theory of reactive depression. Psychological Bulletin, 102, 122138.
Pyszczynski, T., Holt, K., & Greenberg, J. (1987). Depression, self-focused attention, and expectancies for positive and negative future life events for self and others. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52, 9941001.
Quadrel, M. J., Fischhoff, B., & Davis, W. (1993). Adolescent (in)vulnerability. American Psychologist, 48, 102116.
Salovey, P., & Birmaum, D. (1989). Influence of mood on health-relevant cognitions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 57, 539551.
Shepperd, J. A., Grace, J., Cole, L. J., & Klein, C. (2005). Anxiety and outcome predictions. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 31, 267275.
Siegel, S. J., & Alloy, L. B. (1990). Interpersonal perceptions and consequences of depressive-significant other relationships: A naturalistic study of college roommates. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 99, 361373.
Spire, B., & Peretti-Watel, P. (2008). Sida. Une maladie chronique passée au crible [AIDS. Chronic disease sifted]. Paris, France: Presses de l’EHESP.
Starr, L. R., & Davila, J. (2008). Excessive reassurance seeking, depression, and interpersonal rejection: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 117, 762775.
Taylor, S. E., & Brown, J. D. (1988). Illusion and well-being: A social psychological perspective on mental health. Psychological Bulletin, 103, 193210.
Taylor, S. E., Lerner, J. S., Sherman, D. K., Sage, R. M., & McDowell, N. K. (2003). Portrait of the self-enhancer: Well adjusted and well liked or maladjusted and friendless? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 165176.
Tice, D. M., Butler, J. L., Muraven, M. B., & Stillwell, A. M. (1995). When modesty prevails: Differential favorability of self-presentation to friends and strangers. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69, 11201138.
Tyler, J. M., & Rosier, J. G. (2009). Examining self-presentation as a motivational explanation for comparative optimism. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 97, 716727.
Ucbasaran, D., Westhead, P., Wright, M., & Flores, M. (2010). The Nature of entrepreneurial experience, business failure and comparative optimism. Journal of Business Venturing, 25, 541555.
van der Velde, F. W., van der Pligt, J., & Hooykaas, C. (1994). Perceiving AIDS-related risk: Accuracy as a function of differences in actual risk. Health Psychology, 13, 2533.
Vollmann, M., Renner, B., & Weber, H. (2007). Optimism and social support: The providers' perspective. Journal of Positive Psychology, 2, 205215.
Weinstein, N. D. (1980). Unrealistic optimism about future life events. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 39, 806820.
Weinstein, N. D., Marcus, S. E., & Moser, R. P. (2005). Smokers’ unrealistic optimism about their risk. Tobacco Control, 14, 5559.
Wojciszke, B., & Abele, A. (2008). The primacy of communion over agency and its reversals in evaluations. European Journal of Social Psychology, 38, 11391147.
Zuckerman, M. (1979). Sensation seeking: Beyond the optimal level of arousal. New York, NY: Erlbaum Hillsdale.
Zuckerman, M. (1990). The Psychophysiology of Sensation Seeking. Journal of Personality, 58, 313345.



Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed