The Bright Side of Negative Thinking

5 min read · 7 years ago


At least since 1952, when Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking was published, Americans have been inundated with the notion that the path to success can be smoothed by accentuating the positive. In this cult of optimism, one must keep one’s eyes on the prize and not let negative waves interfere, and all forms of positive thinking are cast as inherently helpful.

Gabriele Oettingen wasn’t buying it. The psychology professor at New York University and the University of Hamburg spent more than 20 years testing her contention that “starry-eyed dreaming isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.” 

As it turns out, dreamers are not often doers. Oettingen’s new book, Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation (Current), introduces a seemingly more realistic way of visualizing the future. If our wishful thinking is followed by an acute assessment of the obstacles that stand in the way of our dreams, achievement is far more likely, she contends. We spoke with Oettingen about her work and its practical applications.

Your studies have led you to conclude that positive thinking by itself does little to advance our goals. In fact, you believe it could be detrimental. How so?

My research has confirmed that merely thinking and dreaming about the future makes people less likely to achieve their goals. Just dreaming, detached from an awareness of reality, doesn’t cut it. It seems to let us fulfill our wishes in our minds, but actually it saps the
energy we need to perform the hard work of meeting the challenges we face in real life.

To think positively about the future is very pleasant. It’s a big temptation to think that doing it is the recipe for achieving success, instead of putting in the effort. In our minds, we’ve already reached a desired future, but there is a long way to go. [When people] pretend they are there, they will not prepare themselves for the obstacles and won’t get motivated to make the difficult climb. We might actually forgo realization of our dreams.

Rethinking Positive Thinking Gabriele Oettingen

What were some of the results of your 20 years of research?

We found that students who fantasize about getting together with a romantic partner are less likely to get involved with that person. We found that with overweight women, the more they fantasized about losing weight in a program, the less weight they lost—over three months and over two years.

You’ve come up with an alternative approach that you say leads to more constructive results. 

I call this method “mental contrasting.” It instructs us to dream our dreams, but then visualize the personal barriers that prevent us from achieving them. My studies show that when we perform such mental contrasting, we actually gain energy to take action. And when we go further and specify the actions we intend to take as obstacles arise, we energize ourselves even more. 

Simply put, by adding a bit of realism to people’s positive imaginings of the future, mental contrasting enables them to become dreamers and doers. My work presents a single, surprising idea: The obstacles that we think most impede us from realizing our deepest wishes can actually hasten their fulfillment.

How is mental contrasting useful as a tool to achieve our wishes?

Positive fantasies are great for momentary pleasure, for exploring a possibility a person might have in the future by trying it out mentally. But they seduce people into thinking they are already there. When it comes to actually realizing that possibility, those wishes need to be complemented by a clear sense of reality.

You need to juxtapose those fantasies with the realities in you that stand in the way of achieving these wishes. If you also do that, you get the energy to overcome these obstacles.

If we combine a positive future with the obstacles of reality, then we get going. If we see the obstacles as insurmountable, we realize those wishes are not feasible, so we let them go. We become more selective in what we are going to pursue. Mental contrasting helps us get less overwhelmed with life.

What did your analysis of the blood pressure and brain images of study participants show?

In one study, we recruited 164 female college students to fantasize about wearing sleek, stylish high heels. We randomly divided them into two groups and had them fill out questionnaires on a computer. For three minutes, a message on the screen asked the women in both groups to imagine themselves all dressed up in high heels. They jotted down their thoughts and daydreams. After three minutes,
one group was asked to generate more positive thoughts about wearing their heels; the other group was asked to generate negative thoughts. 

Before we began, we took blood pressure readings of both groups. Systolic blood pressure is a cardiovascular measurement that reveals how energized or motivated a person is. The women who had fantasized positively showed lower systolic blood pressure. The second group showed no change in blood pressure. Positive fantasies relax us so much that it shows up in physiological tests. But when your objective is to make your wish a reality, the last thing you want to be is relaxed.

We also did work measuring brain responses to mental contrasting. It showed enhanced activity in sections of the brain responsible for willfulness and memory—much different patterns than when people were merely fantasizing about a desired future.

Some of your early work on motivation was rejected for publication. Why?

Reviewers claimed the arguments and results were too far-fetched, that my message was ridiculous. If you come up with data that goes against cultural postulates, it’s always difficult. People were reluctant to acknowledge my message. Some are still reluctant. But it was understandable. You can’t necessarily trust the results of just a few studies. So I spent the next 20 years conducting a number of rigorous, larger studies until my overall findings were supported.

The results were the same: Positive fantasies, wishes and dreams—detached from an assessment of past experience—didn’t translate into motivation. They translated into the opposite.

In your book, you take mental contrasting a step further with the introduction of a meditative practice you call WOOP: Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan. It is meant to help people reap the full benefits of mental contrasting. 

Yes, WOOP has another step—the forging of explicit intentions about how to achieve a wish. If you break down the process by which people pursue wishes, you can distinguish two phases: an initial phase in which you weigh your options and decide to commit to a goal, and a second phase in which you plan how to take action to attain the wish.

There is a large amount of literature that shows this second phase is helpful in attaining goals. It doesn’t work if you don’t have a strong determination to implement your wishes. You must identify likely obstacles to your goal and approve behavior to overcome the obstacle. 

This little exercise is a discovery into your wishes—what you really want, not what others want you to do. It will help you find out what you are passionate about and what holds you back.

If you’re a professional, you can use it to reach a new milestone in your career, improve your skills—whatever you can think of. It can be used to help with any kind of wish, short-term or long-term, big or small. 

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