Positive thinking without implementation strategies is ineffective wishful thinking, found NYU’s Gabriele Oettingen.
She advocates a “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 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 are 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.
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”).
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.
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 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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- Working toward Goals with “Implementation Intentions”