Positive thinking without implementation strategies is wishful thinking,and is associated poor performance and complacence, found NYU’s Gabriele Oettingen.
She advocates“Mental Contrast” process by considering obstacles and potential ways to manage them, using a mnemonic WOOP:
Oettingen and University of London colleague Andreas Kappas noted two less effective approaches to goal engagement:
– Indulging by mentally elaborating only the desired future state,
– Dwelling by mentally elaborating only the present reality.
These practices were associated with less goal commitment than Mental Contrast, even when chances of success were good in 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.
However Mentally Contrasting was less effective when perceived chances of success were low.
This approach led to disengagement from goals.
In this case, Indulging in the future goal fantasy or Dwelling only in the present reality both maintained goal commitment.
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 can use Mental Contrast to move on to more feasible goals.
Mental Contrasting can be used to link thoughts about an undesirable future situation when there’s a high probability of avoiding the negative outcome.
This strategy is useful for people with difficulty generating positive thoughts about future health status or members of “out-groups.”
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.
Another way to increase performance is to adopt a “silver lining theory,” that a negative personal attribute is associated with a positive attribute.
Volunteers were informed that:
- They were impulsive,
- “Impulsivity is associated with creativity.”
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.
They did this 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 essay) with a present reality also increased physiological energization measured by systolic blood pressure and grip strength.
Mental contrasting may trigger energy activation 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 potential outcomes.
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.
Student volunteers 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.
An exception occurs when the probability of successfully 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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