Blame it on Oprah.
Positive thinking is touted as the key that unlocks success (remember “The Secret”, which the Oprah Winfrey‘s show helped make an international best-seller?), but it turns out that an overwhelmingly rosy outlook can keep us from achieving our goals, according to psychologist Gabriele Oettingen.
At the physiological level, positive thinking—measured by its effect on blood pressure—relaxes us and drains us of motivation. In one of Dr. Oettingen’s studies, obese participants who fantasized about successfully losing weight lost 24 pounds less than those who refrained from doing so. In another, people in a business skills class who had positive fantasies missed class more and had lower grades at the end.
In Rethinking Positive Thinking, out this month from Penguin Random House, the New York University researcher discusses the pitfalls of unbridled positivity and suggests an alternative: a technique called “mental contrasting.” In separate studies, students using mental contrasting scored 10% higher on quizzes, and adults using the technique were 30% more likely to exercise, both when compared to people who only engaged in positive thinking.
Dr. Oettingen recently spoke with At Work. Edited excerpts follow.
WSJ: “Positive thinking” is a pretty broad category. Are there different types of positive thinking, and are they all detrimental to performance?
Oettingen: There’s a difference between positive expectations, which are judgments about whether particular things will happen in the future, and positive fantasies, which are those stream-of-consciousness fantasies about just how it’ll feel when you achieve your goal.
Positive expectations are fine, and positive fantasies are too when you have no real control over whether something happens. But when it comes to something you want to achieve, and fulfilling these wishes, positive fantasies are problematic because they relax you. They don’t provide the energy and effort necessary to help you in your goals, because you’ve feel that you have already attained the positive future. They are dangerous when you actually want to achieve that future.
WSJ: It’s natural to daydream about the future. Are there ways we can daydream that can help us get to our goals?
Oettingen: We’ve developed a technique called “mental contrasting.” We thought, “OK, let’s save the value of the positive daydream” because we understand that the positive daydreams are important to give some direction about what you want. So go ahead and have that fantasy to feel good. But next, consider the obstacles and hindrances that stand in the way of achieving that, so you can think realistically about how to attack each obstacle. That’s mental contrasting.
Mental contrasting can help you prioritize projects in your life. Sometimes people imagine a goal and of course they really want it, but after thinking about all the obstacles, they realize that it’s actually not feasible and they have no idea how to achieve it. Then they decide that maybe they should postpone it to another time, or maybe the goal is just too vague, or maybe they should readjust, and this helps save them from having an unreasonable goal they can’t attain.
WSJ: You’ve done a study about the effect of mental contrasting in a negotiation setting. What happened there?
Oettigen: In the study, we had pairs of people negotiating on a deal. In one group, both partners did mental contrasting before the negotiation, another group did only positive thinking, the third focused only on the obstacles, and the fourth was a control group that did nothing. What we found was that the mental contrasting encourages cooperation and that people were win-win savvy, meaning that they were fairer to the others, so that both partners got out of the negotiation with a good outcome.
WSJ: You’ve also worked on developing something called “implementation intentions” to tackle those obstacles that we imagine. How does that work?
Oettingen: Implementation intentions is what I call “if-then” planning. So, something like, “If I get out of bed, then I will go for a run.” It’s what you do once you’ve identified the obstacles.
The easy way to remember [all of] this is what I call WOOP: wish, outcome, obstacle, plan. It’s a principle that you can apply to a lot of things.
So take the wish: You want to do really well at a business meeting. Then imagine the best outcome, and how great it would be if everything went well. Think about the obstacles–maybe someone isn’t prepared, or you get nervous, or you’re too tired from your event on Sunday night–that are hindrances. And plan for what you’re going to do, whether it’s reading over your notes again or making sure you get enough sleep.
This process changes your behavior by creating a link between the future and the reality, so you can’t daydream without doing anything. Now that fun event on Sunday night isn’t just a fun event, it’s also possibly an obstacle to doing well on that important business meeting, and maybe you’ll do something differently to help you at that business meeting on Monday.