What’s the worst that could happen?

I often joke with my wife that you shouldn’t ask anyone with an engineering background “what’s the worst that could happen?”  We get paid fairly well to come up with really scary answers to that question.  She’ll often come up with something bad, only to have me top it in terrible ways.  “The worst that happens is we go to the party, don’t have fun, and go home.”  “No, the worst that happens is we’re in a car accident on our way home, which can’t happen if we don’t leave the house.”


So it was with some interest that I noted a recent study on anticipating the worst.  Timothy Pychyl blogged about it at the Psychology Today website, as it relates to his topic of interest, procrastination.  Let me sum it up briefly here:

  • If you anticipate the worst, you dread the event, “paying” in stress prior to it happening
  • If something good happens, you are no happier because you were pleasantly surprised
  • If something bad happens, you are only barely less upset because you expected it

In other words, if stress has a cost and happiness and accomplishment is a benefit, anticipating the worst always costs extra, no matter the outcome.

Building realistic expectations is a vital engineering skill.  Turning a shadow into a monster and using that fear as an excuse not to take any risks is a different beast, and a dangerous one.  It’s easy to fall into the trap, especially in a corporate setting, where risk-averse decision making may be rewarded in the short term.   I know I’ve fallen for it before.

There is an interesting side note to this discussion — visualizing the worst possible outcome does sometimes cause behavioral changes to prevent it.  Visualizing how poorly it would reflect on your career if your presentation bombs might trick you into preparing more.  But the study shows it has little to no impact on how you feel after you give the presentation, whether you bomb or not.

Finding a middle ground, letting the rational visualization of negative results motivate you without letting irrational fear paralyze you, is the real trick here.

1 comment so far ↓

#1 Ralph on 08.09.09 at 8:29 am

Good post! I think that anticipating the worst comes in handy when you are trying to overcome a fear.

It helps you look at the fear directly and evaluate just how rational or irrational it really is. Once you’ve made that decision, it is easier to go forward knowing that the worst, isn’t as bad as it first seemed.