Positive thinking without an implementation strategy 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:
Oettingen and University of London colleague Andreas Kappas reported two less effective approaches to goal engagement:
– Indulging – Thinking about the desired future state without considering ways to overcome obstacles,
– Dwelling – Thinking about the present reality without future goals and ways to achieve them.
People who used these approaches were less committed to their goals than those who used Mental Contrast.
This trend was true even when success probabilities were high in interpersonal relations, academic achievement, professional achievement, health, life management experiences.
Mental Contrast helped people self-regulate and improve performance technique when used with Implementation Intentions (MCII).
However, Mental Contrast alone was less effective when perceived chances of success were low.
This approach led to disengagement from goals.
More effective approaches in this condition were Indulging in the future goal fantasy or Dwelling only in the present reality.
Volunteers who spent more time imagining working in a “dream job,” but had lower expectations of success, received fewer job offers and lower starting salaries, found Oettingen and Doris Mayer of University of Hamburg.
The research team differentiated the motivational impact of:
- Positive expectations for future success->high effort+successful performance,
- Positive fantasies when the probability of success is low->no increased effort.
Mental Contrast helped people disengage from unfeasible goals like reviving 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 Mental Contrast of fantasy vs 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”).
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.
Mental Contrast between a desired future with a present reality also increased physiological activation measured by systolic blood pressure and grip strength.
This energy activation from mental processes can increase performance effort, concluded University of Hamburg’s A. Timur Sevincer and P. Daniel Busatta collaborating with Oettingen.
Coupling Mental Contrast 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 Peter Gollwitzer and Oettingen.
Volunteers compared a desired future with potential obstacles, and developed if–then implementation intentions to mitigate obstacles.
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 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 Contrast to enhance goal commitment and realization.
Mental Contrast can increase motivation when used with Implementation Intentions.
An exception occurs when there is low probability of achieving goals.
In those cases, Indulging or Dwelling strategies are more effective in maintaining goal motivation.
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