“A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” – Winston Churchill

It may not be a great surprise to hear that people who are depressed, anxious, or just plain stressed are far more likely to view the proverbial “glass” as half empty than their cheerful, optimism, or relaxed counterparts.  There is evidence in psychological research indicating that a similar pessimistic outlook on life is observed in non-human animals, such as dogs, birds, and rats.  Perhaps it was only a matter of time before a study was published to indicate that even bees can have a pessimistic outlook on life in and around the hive.

This study indicated that bees have responses to stress than are far more reminiscent of typical human responses than previously understood.  Geraldine Wright of Newcastle University explains, “Bees stressed by a simulated predator attack exhibit pessimism mirroring that is seen in depressed and anxious people.”  While bees may have reactions similar to humans under stress, that does not necessarily mean that they experience emotions as we do.

Researchers set out to investigate how bees view their worlds by putting them in a situation where they were forced to make a decision about whether or not an unfamiliar scent indicated good or bad things.  The unwitting bees were taught to associate one odor with a sweet reward and another odor with the bitter taste of quinine.

The bees were then divided up into two separate groups, with one group “shaken violently” for a full minute in order to simulate an attack on the hive and the other group left in peace.  The two groups of bees were then presented with the old familiar odors and some new odors that were a mix of the two.

Stress & Cognitive Bias

The study found that the stressed/agitated bees were less likely than the undisturbed bees to “extend their mouthparts to the odor predicting quinine and similar novel odors.”  Researchers surmised that the stressed-out bees acted as if they were expecting a bitter taste.  This is a pessimistic outlook on the world known as cognitive bias.

Researchers believe that the agitated honeybee’s so-called pessimistic behavior is similar to behaviors observed in stressed/agitated dogs, rats, or other animals – like humans.

While it is readily apparent that we are not honeybees, it is worth considering how our own outlooks on the world change dramatically when under stress, pressure, and agitation.  When we are in a state of anxiety, fear, or depression, there is a natural tendency to view our state of affairs in a more pessimistic light.

As you reflect on how your own outlook on life shifts when under significant emotional and psychological stress, try to actively notice how your outlook shifts in a positive way when the stress lifts.  For this reason, it may be wise to refrain from making important life decisions when under significant stress, as there is a greater likelihood of engaging in cognitive bias.  We can learn our own lessons from the pessimism of the stressed bees.

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Cell Press (2011, June 3). For stressed bees, the glass is half empty. ScienceDaily. Retrieved June 3, 2011, from http://www.sciencedaily.com­ /releases/2011/06/110602122248.htm

Featured image: I’m getting a buzz by *Micky / CC BY 2.0

About Laura K. Schenck, Ph.D., LPC

I am a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) with a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Northern Colorado. Some of my academic interests include: Dialectical Behavior Therapy, mindfulness, stress reduction, work/life balance, mood disorders, identity development, supervision & training, and self-care.

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