IELTS Academic Reading Sample 81 – The politics of pessimism


The politics of pessimism

Newspaper headlines and TV or radio news bulletins would have us believe erroneously that a new age has come upon us, the Age of Cassandra. People arc being assailed not just with contemporary doom, or past gloom, but with prophecies of disasters about to befall. The dawn of the new millennium has now passed; the earth is still intact, and the fin de siècle Jeremiahs have now gone off to configure a new date for the apocalypse.

It can, I believe, be said with some certainty that the doom-mongers will never run out of business. Human nature has an inclination for pessimism and anxiety, with each age hav­ing its demagogues, foretelling doom or dragging it in their wake. But what makes the modern age so different is that the catastrophes are more “in your face”, Their assault on our senses is relentless. Whether it be subconscious or not, this is a situation not lost on politicians. They play upon people’s propensity for unease, turning it into a very effective political tool.

Deluding the general public

All too often, when politicians want to change the status quo, they take advantage of peo­ple’s fears of the unknown and their uncertainties about the future. For example, details about a new policy may be leaked to the press. Of course, the worst-case scenario is pre­sented in all its depressing detail. When the general public reacts in horror, the government appears to cave in. And then accepting some of the suggestions from their critics, ministers water down their proposals. This allows the government to get what It wants, while at the same time fooling the public into believing that they have got one over on the government. Or even that they have some say in the making of policy.,

There are several principles at play here. And both are rather simple: unsettle people and then play on their fears; and second, people must be given an opportunity to make a con­tribution, however insignificant, in a given situation; otherwise, they become dissatisfied, not fearful or anxious.

A similar ruse, at a local level, will further illustrate how easily people’s base fears are ex­ploited. A common practice is to give people a number of options, say in a housing devel­opment, ranging from no change to a radical transformation of an area. The aim is to per­suade people to agree on significant modifications, which may involve disruption to their lives, and possibly extra expenditure. The individuals, fearful of the worst possible outcome, plump for the middle course. And this, incidentally, Is Invariably the option favoured by the authorities. Everything is achieved under the guise of market research, But It is obviously a blatant exercise in the manipulation of people’s fears.

Fear and survival

Fear and anxieties about the future affect us till. People are wracked with self-doubt and low self-esteem. In the struggle to exist and advance in life, a seemingly endless string, of obstacles is encountered, so ninny, in fact, that any accomplishment seems surprising. liven when people do suicide they are still nagged by uncertainty,

Not surprisingly, feelings like doubt, fear, anxiety and pessimism arc usually associated with failure. Yet, If properly harnessed, they are the driving force behind success, the very engines of genius.

if things turn out well for a long time, there is further anxiety: that of constantly waiting for something to go wrong. People then find themselves propitiating the gods: not walking on lines on the pavements, performing before public performances, wearing a  sort of particu­lar clothes and colours so that they can blame the ritual not themselves when things go wrong,

But surely the real terror comes when success continues uninterrupted for such a long period of time that we forget what failure Is like I

We crave for and are fed a daily diet of anxiety, horror films and disaster movies have an increasing appeal. Nostradamus pops his head up now and again, And other would-be prophets make a brief appearance, predicting the demise of humankind. Perhaps this is all just a vestige of the hardships of early man – our attempt to recreate the struggles of a past age, as it becomes more and more comfortable.

Mankind cannot live by a content mind alone. And so, a world awash with atheism and pes­simism has been created. Being optimistic is a struggle. But survival dictates that mankind remain ever sanguine.

Questions 1-5

Choose one phrase (A-K) from the list of phrases to complete each key point below.

Write the appropriate letters (A-K) in Boxes 1-5 on your answer sheet.

The information in the completed sentences should be an accurate summary of the points made by the writer.

NB. There are more phrases (A-K) than sentences, so you wilt not need to use them all. You may use each phrase once only.

Key points

1. Newspaper headlines and TV or radio news bulletins …

  1. Doom-mongers are popular, because of people …
  2. Today, catastrophes …
  3. To politicians, people’s Inclination for fear…
  4. The government…

List of phrases

A. are not as threatening as In the past

B. tell the truth

C. blame them

D. try to make us believe mistakenly that we are In a new era

E. calm people down

F. are uncertain about the future

G. are less comfortable

H. are natural pessimists and worriers

I. are more Immediate

J. get what they want by deceiving the public

K. is something they can make use of

Questions 6-9

Choose the appropriate letters A-D and write them in Boxes 6-9 on your answer sheet.

6. The housing development example shows that people …

A. are not that easily deceived

B. like market research

C. lead their fears

D. are easy to delude

7. Which one of the following statements is true, according to the passage?

A. Market research uses people’s fears for their own good

B. People are scared by market research techniques

C. Market research techniques are used as a means of taking advantage of people’s fears

D. Market research makes people happy

8. The engines of genius are …

A. properly harnessed

B. the driving force behind the success

C. driven by feelings like fear

D. usually associated with failure

9. Continual success …

A. makes people arrogant

B. worries people

C. does not have any negative effects on people

D. increases people’s self-esteem

Questions 10-14

Do the statements below agree with the information in Reading Passage 1?

In Boxes 10-14, write:

YES, if the statement agrees with the information in the passage

NO, if the statement contradicts the information in the passage

NOṬ GIVEN, if there is no information about the statement in the passage

Example: Politicians pretend things are worse than they are.

Answer: Yes.


10. The complex relationship between failure and success needs to be addressed carefully.

11. People perform certain rituals to try to avoid failure.

12. Anxiety in daily life is what we want.

13. The writer believes that Nostradamus and certain other prophets are right about their predictions for the end of the human race.

14. Mankind needs to be pessimistic to survive.


1. Answer: D. The answer is in the first paragraph. The keyword is erroneousB. is incorrect, as it is the opposite of what the passage says.

2. Answer: H. The answer is in the second paragraph, in the first part of the second sentence: Human nature has an inclination for pessimism and anxiety. Notice how the second sentence here explains why doom-mongers will never be out of business. And notice how you anticipate that an explanation is needed as you read the first sentence. This type of question is testing your ability to understand the relationship between information across sentences.

3. Answer: I. The answer is in paragraph 2 where catastrophes in the past and present are compared: … is that the catastrophes are more ” in your face “, i.e. immediate.

4. Answer: K. The answer is in the latter half of the second paragraph.

5. Answer: J. The answer is in paragraph 3. The sentences are in effect a summary of the paragraph. Note how the writer interchanges government, politicians and ministers in the paragraph.

Questions 6 – 9

6. Answer: D. The answer can be found in the first sentence of the fifth paragraph. Note that delude means device; look at the title for this section in the passage. A is not true, because it is the opposite of the correct answer. B is not mentioned and C is not possible, because, in the last sentence of the paragraph, it says people are manipulated by their fears.

7. Answer: C. The answer is in paragraph 5. A is not correct, because it doesn’t say whether market research uses people’s fears to help them; it says that it takes advantage of them, i.e. manipulates/exploits them. B and D are not correct, because the text does not mention any information about either.

8. Answer: C. The answer is in paragraph 7: they are the driving force behind success. The word refers to the feelings mentioned previously. A is incorrect, because the passage talks about ” if ” not ” when “: …if properly harnessed… B. is incorrect because it is feelings that are said to be the driving force behind the success ( not the engines of genius). D. is wrong because the writer says it is the feelings listed which are usually associated with failure.

9. Answer: B. The answer is in the eighth paragraph. A and D are obviously wrong and C is the opposite.

Questions 10 – 14

10. Answer: Not Given. The text does not say anything about this.

11. Answer: Yes. The answer is in paragraph 8.

12. Answer: Yes. The answer is in the first sentence of the penultimate paragraph.

13. Answer: Not Given. The answer is in the penultimate paragraph. The text does not tell us what the writer believes about Nostradamus’s predictions or those of the other prophets either.

14. Answer: No. The answer is in the last sentence. The word sanguine means hopeful.

Source: IELTS Material