Positive Thinking, Mental Contrasting Plus WOOP to Improve Performance

Gabriele Oettingen

Gabriele Oettingen

Positive thinking without implementation strategies is ineffective wishful thinking, found NYU’s Gabriele Oettingen.
She advocates using “Mental Contrast” by considering obstacles and potential ways to manage them, using a mnemonic WOOP:

  • Wish,
  • Outcome,
  • Obstacle,
  • Plan.
Andreas Kappes

Andreas Kappes

Oettingen and University of London colleague Andreas Kappas noted two less effective approaches to goal engagement:

– Indulging by thinking about the desired future state without ways to overcome obstacles

– Dwelling by thinking about the present reality without future goals and ways to achieve them,

People who use these approaches were less committed to their goals than those who use 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.

Probability of Success-Mental Contrast-Indulve-Dwelling

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 when the probability of success is low, 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.

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 increased performance when they linked a negative personal attribute (“impulsivity”) with its positive element (“creativity”).

Timur Sevincer

Timur Sevincer

Participants showed greater effort-based creativity than those who were given no information or told that there’s no association between impulsivity and creativity.

This “silver lining theory” increased performance and enabled people to manage perceived negative attributes.

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.

This energy activation from mental processes can increase effort to perform an unrelated task, concluded University of Hamburg’s A. Timur Sevincer and P. Daniel Busatta collaborating with Oettingen.

Philip Daniel Busatta

Philip Daniel Busatta

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.

Teri Kirby

Teri Kirby

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 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?


©Kathryn Welds

3 thoughts on “Positive Thinking, Mental Contrasting Plus WOOP to Improve Performance

  1. kathrynwelds Post author

    Gary W. Kelly wrote:
    IMO, this is difficult to translate into anything useful for an average employee. It may be that people already having a positive and success oriented psychology can benefit–but, they are doing well anyway . . . For those who are struggling, this is not going to make any useful difference.

    What matters in creating a positive image of any future is the beliefs and self image one has. To advise a person with a poor self image to imagine being in a situation where appreciation, compensation, and advancement are realities is fruitless. It will never happen until the self image changes first. Prolonged sessions trying to do this will be depressing, and confirm the poor self image.

    To advise a person with beliefs that “money is the root of all evil” to imagine a career with rich financial rewards, and to see herself as wealth and in the class she desires will produce conflict. She will be defeated as soon as she starts. No significant change can occur until the beliefs change to be more expansive.

    Most people have beliefs that limit them from achieving their desires. These need to be understood and changed before exercises of visualization and goal achievement can be successful. Advising a person to engage in the exercises without first examining and being aware of individual beliefs is like advising a woman who is blind to go forth and navigate her neighborhood–she will likely stumble, and be battered and bruised while making the attempt. She may return home and refuse to listen to such entreaties again.

    Help her to see first–see her beliefs, values, and understand her current image of herself. Then help her to create the tools for her to set forth more successfully. People are much the same–they are blind to their own beliefs, their own self image. they need to come to terms with those before seeing themselves at the ball dancing with Prince Charming–or being Prince Charming.

    Kathryn Welds re:plied
    Thanks, Gary, for reinforcing the importance of considering deeply-held values, evaluating automatic negative thoughts, and assessing the likelihood of success in achieving goals.

    An earlier blog post identifies ways to recognize and modify unproductive thought patterns like self-defeating beliefs:

  2. kathrynwelds Post author

    Sandra Ondraschek-Norris wrote:
    Thanks for this post Kathryn. I was lucky enough to hear Gabriele Oettingen speak on this topic and can wholeheartedly recommend the WOOP approach as well as the book ‘Rethinking Positive Thinking’.

    Kathryn Welds replied
    Thanks so much for the validation of Oettingen’s WOOP approach, based on your reading of her book, available @http://www.amazon.com/Rethinking-Positive-Thinking-Science-Motivation/dp/1591846870

    For a preview, you can see her in action @ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7mobxikaYgU

  3. kathrynwelds Post author

    Gary W. Kelly wrote:

    Yes, the RET work of Albert Ellis is one good element, as are the others. The issue with them is that they are much too cognitive for many people. “Thoughts” for many people are elusive, jumbled, and broken into fragments. They may not have the skills to objectify them through writing, and not yet developed skills for analyzing their thoughts, following a line of thought to a belief, and realizing that it is a belief that can be changed.

    For these people, there is an answer. Use emotions to find beliefs. Any emotion arises out of beliefs. At the time one experiences an emotion there is an opportunity to ask “Why am I feeling this?” Doing this successively whenever emotions are experienced–especially strong emotions, leads to beliefs as surely as objectifying them through writing them down.

    Recognizing beliefs as beliefs is the first step in altering them. Following one to another is equally important–some beliefs connect to other beliefs–these may be called “bridge” beliefs. Other beliefs link to a core belief–a deeply held belief that is normally never questioned.

    Example: I am a responsible parent.
    May connect to:
    I have to stay on top of the kids all the time!
    and lead to:
    I never got away with anything when I grew up.

    Taken separately, the beliefs may not be questioned, or even seem worth examination. When there is stress over an incident, then there is an opportunity to understand that a belief about childhood may be creating over-critical and micromanagement of your own children now.

    Doing this successively can be as effective as writing out thoughts, and analyzing them to understand patterns of beliefs. Yes, for any positive thought process to work, it is essential to do one or the other of these exercises first, in order to be sure that the suggestions/practices one is doing are not in conflict with basic beliefs, concepts, or tied to past experiences in a way that thwarts the achievement of the objective.

    It does little good to project for a better position with a higher salary if one believes that money corrupts people, or that those having money are less moral, or a host of other beliefs that tie money, finance, or associate lifestyle with behaviors and circumstances that are unacceptable. The steps towards positive affirmation and the behaviors to achieve a change will produce conflict more than success whenever basic beliefs conflict with the object or methods used to reach goals.

    Kathryn Welds responded:
    Thanks or mentioning ways to detect underlying beliefs that could interfere with Mental Contrasting possible future states and developing Implementation Intentions (MCII), Gary.
    Your detailed summary is a helpful reminder that techniques like MCII can be modified for more widespread adoption.


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