Positive thinking without additional evaluation and implementation strategies is wishful thinking that may lead to poor performance, found NYU’s Gabriele Oettingen.
She advocates coupling an optimistic outlook with considering obstacles and potential ways to manage them, using a mnemonic WOOP:
Visualizing good outcomes without considering potential obstacles and a specific plan to achieve the goal led volunteers to become complacent, she noted.
To mitigate reduced motivation triggered by wishful thinking, Oettingen and University of London colleague Andreas Kappas taught volunteers “Mental Contrast” to consider potential obstacles to desired future outcomes, and identify ways to manage these potential challenges.
The team differentiated Mental Contrast from two less effective approaches to goal engagement:
- Indulging by mentally elaborating only desired future,
- Dwelling by mentally elaborating only the present reality.
These practices lead to less strong goal commitment than Mental Contrast, even when chances of success appear good across interpersonal relations, academic achievement, professional achievement, health, life management experiences.
Mental Contrast was an effective self-regulatory technique when coupled with Implementation Intentions (MCII) to improve achievement, interpersonal, and health habits.
These trends changed when perceived chances of success were low: Mentally Contrasting a desired future with present reality led to disengagement from goals, whereas Indulging in the future goal fantasy or Dwelling only in the present reality both maintained goal commitment.
However, in another study, volunteers who spent more time imagining working in a “dream job,” but who also had lower expectations of achieving this goal, received fewer job offers and lower starting salaries, found Oettingen and Doris Mayer of University of Hamburg.
They differentiated the motivational impact of:
- Positive expectations for future success, which predicted high effort and successful performance,
- Positive fantasies, which didn’t increase effort.
Mental Contrasting helped people disengage from unfeasible goals like rehabilitating an ended relationship or achieving an unattainable professional identity.
When chances of success are low, people Mentally Contrast desired future with present reality to moved on to more feasible goals.
Similarly, Mental Contrasting linked negative thoughts about an undesirable future situation to avoidance goals provided that the probability of successfully avoiding the undesired future is high.
This strategy can be useful for people with difficulty generating positive fantasies about future health domain or reducing prejudice toward members of a minority or “out-group.”
When facing controllable and escapable tasks, people benefitted from Mentally Contrasting fantasy with reality.
However, when facing tasks that cannot be mastered such as terminal illness, Indulging in positive fantasies enabled people to maintain a positive outlook.
Volunteers who held a “silver lining theory” that a negative personal attribute is associated with a positive attribute, increased effortful performance toward the positive attribute when informed that:
- They were impulsive
- The silver lining theory states that “impulsivity is associated with creativity.”
These on-line and in-person participants showed greater effort-based creativity than those who were given no information or for whom the silver lining theory was refuted.
The Silver Lining Theory increased performance and enabled people to mitigate a perceived negative attributes by promoting effortful behavior toward a positive attribute linked to the negative attribute.
Mentally Contrasting a desired future (such as excelling in an intelligence test and writing an excellent essay) with a present reality increased physiological energization measured by systolic blood pressure and grip strength to the degree a person expected to attain the desired future.
Mental contrasting may trigger energization that fuels effort to perform an unrelated task, concluded University of Hamburg’s A. Timur Sevincer and P. Daniel Busatta collaborating with Oettingen.
Coupling Mental Contrasting with Implementation Intentions (MCII) helped economically-disadvantaged children convert positive thoughts about future outcomes into effective action, found University of Pennsylvania’s Angela Lee Duckworth, Teri A. Kirby of University of Washington with NYU’s Anton Gollwitzer and and Oettingen.
Student volunteers learned to compare a desired future with potential obstacles, then developed if–then implementation intentions to expected overcomes.
More than 75 U.S. urban middle school 10 year olds were randomly assigned to learn either MCII or a Positive Thinking strategy as a control comparison.
Those who applied MCII tools to their academic goals significantly improved their report card grades, attendance, and conduct, suggesting the value of Mental Contrasting to enhance goal commitment and realization.
Mental Contrasting can be a powerful tool to increase motivation, particularly when coupled with Implementation Intentions, except when the realistic probability of success in achieving goals is low.
In those cases, Indulging or Dwelling strategies are more effective in maintaining goal motivation.
- How have you seen Mental Contrasting and considering your probability of success to manage your motivation and performance?
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Blog – Kathryn Welds | Curated Research and Commentary
LinkedIn Open Group Psychology in Human Resources (Organisational Psychology)