Researchers have long championed the benefits of optimism, proclaiming that positive
expectations can foster mental health and well being (see Shepperd, Carroll, & Sweeny, 2008 for
a review). Intuitively, perhaps the greatest benefit of optimism is that it prompts positive affect.
Expecting a rosy future feels good, whereas expecting a dire future feels bad (Mellers, B. A.,
Schwartz, A., Ho, Katty, & Ritov, I., 1997). It thus is not surprising that people recommend
optimism for forthcoming outcomes (Armor, Massey, & Sackett, in press). Recent theorizing on
bracing for bad news, however, suggests that the affective benefits of optimism may be limited.
In the face of impending feedback, optimism is risky because it can be quickly disconfirmed.
Should outcomes fall short of expectations, the downstream costs of optimism are negative affect
and disappointment (Carroll, Sweeny, & Shepperd, 2006).
Importantly, the upstream and downstream costs and benefits of optimism and pessimism
have never been simultaneously tested. To our knowledge, no study has tested whether the
affective benefits of unrealistic optimism prior to feedback come at the cost of greater negative
affect after feedback. Likewise, no study has tested whether the affective costs of pessimism
prior to feedback pay dividends of greater positive affect after feedback. Although a few studies
have examined the immediate and downstream consequences of dispositional optimism (Sanna,
1996; Sanna & Chang, 2003) and optimistic goals (Galinsky, Mussweiler, & Medvec, 2002;
Garland, 1983; Mento, Locke, & Klein, 1992), none has targeted people’s expectations at the
moment of truth or the comparison between these expectations and actual performance.
Moreover, the goal studies examined optimistic goals prior to performance. We explored the