“Positive thinking fools our minds into perceiving that we’ve already attained our goal, slackening our readiness to pursue it.” –Gabriele Oettingen (2014)
“Think Positive”. At some point, someone has probably given you some variation of this popular adage. It is the motto of the modern human, the product of our revitalized, even sensational, interest in the powers of positive thinking.
And it is not horrible advice either. Research has found that positive thinkers enjoy numerous benefits over their negative counterparts. Positive thinkers are more resilient to stress, recover more quickly from physical injury, and are even less likely to have heart attacks during surgery (Carver & Scheier, 1993).
Alongside such scientific endorsements, we have been seeing this robust theme of optimism and self-love resonating through much of our art and culture. We hear it in many of our favorite pop songs, and we read it on the covers of countless self-help books that hit shelves each year.
As it turns out, however, nothing in the field of psychology is ever so ubiquitously good. Not even positive thinking. Gabriele Oettingen is a professor at New York University, and she is one psychologist whose research advises a more nuanced thought process.
Exploring the Shortcomings of Positive Thinking
In 1991, Gabrielle Oettingen and Thomas A. Wadden conducted a study in which they parsed the two different kinds of positive thinking (expectation and fantasy) and how they differed in their effects on success.
They recruited 25 obese women enrolled in a yearlong weight reduction program. At the beginning of the year, the women reported their expectations for how well they would perform and Oettingen and Wadden scaled these expectations based on their relative positive or negative bias. Then, throughout the year, they gave the women a variety of scenarios to visualize. Some of these scenarios involved fantasies of successful weight loss, while others involved pessimistic visions of failure and cheating. The women rated the level of how positive or negative of their visions were.
The results of the study may seem counter intuitive. Oettingen and Wadden found that the women who had more positive fantasies lost less weight than their more negative counterparts. Also, they found that expectation and fantasy produced strikingly different effects. While positive fantasy hindered weight loss, positive expectation did the opposite. In 2011, Oettingen teamed up with Heather Kappes to find an explanation for this discrepancy.
Fantasy and Expectation: The Different Types of Positive Thinking
They had two groups of college students write out the tasks and events of the coming week. Then, they asked one group to fantasize positively about the week. while the other group, was given no such direction, and instead, they were simply asked write down any relevant thoughts about the week.
Afterwards, they asked both groups to rate their energy levels. As you might be able to guess, the group of ‘fantasizers’ reported lower energy levels. Not only that, but by the end of the week, they accomplished less.
Oettingen (2014) concluded that “dreaming about the future calms you down, measurably reducing systolic blood pressure, but it also can drain you of the energy you need to take action in pursuit of your goals.”
Mental Contrasting: An Alternative to Positive Thinking
As an alternative, Oettingen and her colleagues suggest “mental contrasting,” which is an approach to positive thinking which includes the components of the realism and pragmatism usually present in negative thinking. Here is how Oettingen (2014) explains it:
“Think of a wish. For a few minutes, imagine the wish coming true, letting your mind wander and drift where it will. Then shift gears. Spend a few more minutes imagining the obstacles that stand in the way of realizing your wish.”
WOOP: The 4 steps of Mental Contrasting
Oettingen has formalized the tenets of positive expectation with hint of realism, making mental contrasting into a structured strategy for easy implementation, it is known as WOOP, the acronym for:
Make a wish but ensure it is challenging, but also realistic.
Identify the best possible consequences of this wish coming true and how that would make you feel. Savour it.
Identify the main obstacles within yourself, such emotions or habits that stand in the way of you fulfilling your wish. Do not shy away from them rather envision them as fully as you would your most favorable outcomes.
Create a specific plan for overcoming each obstacle that stands in your way of success. When you make this plan, try to be as specific, realistic and practical as possible.
The Science Supporting Mental Contrasting
Studies have found this approach to be far more effective than positive or negative thinking alone. People using mental contrasting have been found to exercise more, eat more vegetables, cultivate healthier relationships, and even recover from chronic back pain quicker (Stadler et al., 2009; Stadler et al., 2010; Houssais et al., 2013; Christiansen et al., 2010).
A Take Home Message
This article is not about abandoning all positive thought. Rather, it is about understanding that positive thinking is not the be-all, end-all solution to success. We consider positive thinking as a vague concept, and we may unknowingly hinder ourselves by neglecting its more nuanced nature.
It would seem that there are different types of positive thinking, and certain types, like fantasizing, may do us more harm than good. Likewise, there are distinct facets in negative thinking that may be more productive in helping us fulfill our wishes than we think. It is important, then, that we complement our positive expectations with the realistic, sometimes negative, mindfulness of the obstacles we face. This nuanced approach of mental contrasting thus offers us a more holistic and realistic way of fulfilling our wishes and achieving our goals.
Want more on Mental Contrasting?
If you’d like to learn more, you can get started with Gabriele Oettingen’s article featured in The New York Times. Oettingen has also written a book called, Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation.
If you’d like to learn more about how to implement WOOP, you can read about it on the official WOOP website. And for a closer look at the research behind mental contrasting, here is a list of publications.
Now it’s your turn to shine, what are you dreaming of and how do you plan to overcome the obstacles that stand in your way? We would love to hear your story in the comment box below.
Christiansen, S., Oettingen, G., Dahme, B., & Klinger, R. (2010). A short goal-pursuit intervention to improve physical capacity: A randomized clinical trial in chronic back pain patients. Pain, 149(3), 444-452. doi:10.1016/j.pain.2009.12.015
Get up and WOOP. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://woopmylife.org/new-page-3/
Houssais, S., Oettingen, G., & Mayer, D. (2012). Using mental contrasting with implementation intentions to self-regulate insecurity-based behaviors in relationships. Motivation and Emotion, 37(2), 224-233. doi:10.1007/s11031-012-9307-4
Kappes, H. B., & Oettingen, G. (2011). Positive fantasies about idealized futures sap energy. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47(4), 719-729. doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2011.02.003
Oettingen, G., & Wadden, T. A. (1991). Expectation, fantasy, and weight loss: Is the impact of positive thinking always positive? Cognitive Therapy and Research, 15(2), 167-175. doi:10.1007/bf01173206
Oettingen, G. (2014, October 24). The Problem With Positive Thinking - The New York Times. Retrieved November 3, 2016, from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/26/opinion/sunday/the-problem-with-positive-thinking.html
Scheier, M. F., & Carver, C. S. (1993, February). On the Power of Positive Thinking: The Benefits of Being Optimistic. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 2(1), 26-30. doi:10.1111/1467-8721.ep10770572
Stadler, G., Oettingen, G., & Gollwitzer, P. (2011, July). Physical Activity in Women : Effects of a Self-Regulation Intervention. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 36(1).
Stadler, G., Oettingen, G., & Gollwitzer, P. M. (2010). Intervention effects of information and self-regulation on eating fruits and vegetables over two years. Health Psychology, 29(3), 274-283. doi:10.1037/a0018644