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The Power of Negative Thinking

Pop psychology tells us we can't go wrong with positive thinking. But new studies show that taking account of our obstacles is essential to success.

Lie back and picture life after your ambitions are fulfilled, the motivational gurus used to say, and you’ll bring that end result closer to reality. Make an effort to visualize every detail – the finished screenplay sitting pretty on your desk, the gushing reviews in the paper, the sports car parked outside. The gurus claimed these images would galvanize your determination. They said you could use the power of positive thinking to will success to happen. But then some important research came along that muddied the rosy picture.

Gabriele Oettingen’s psychology lab at New York University has shown that visualizing our aims as already achieved can backfire. The positive imagery can be inspiring at first but it also tricks the mind into relaxing, as if the hard work is done. This means the more compelling the mental scene of success, the more likely it is that your energy will seep away. In the study, volunteers felt de-energized after visualizing success in an essay competition. In another, participants who fantasised about their goals for the coming week felt less energetic and achieved fewer of their goals.

Why Picturing Future Obstacles Actually Helps

A related problem with picturing what life will be like after we’ve achieved our goals is that it encourages us to gloss over the obstacles to success that are standing in our way. While the fantasy about our successful new fashion line or our future gym-fit physique might give us a frisson of excitement, it also distracts us from the practical steps we need to put in place to turn dream into reality. Of course you need to have an end goal in mind – purpose and direction are vital – but just as important is to think hard about the hurdles lying in wait. Oettingen’s team call this strategy “mental contrasting” – thinking about how wonderful it would be to achieve your goals, while paying due attention to where you’re at now and all the distance and difficulties that lie in between. Visualizing our aims as already achieved can backfire. Two weeks after a group of mid-level managers at four hospitals in Germany were trained in this mental contrasting technique, research by Oettingen’s group showed they’d achieved more of their short-term goals than their colleagues who’d missed out on the training, and they found it easier to make planning decisions. That’s another benefit of mental contrasting: by thinking realistically about the obstacles to success, it helps us pick challenges that we’re likely to win and avoid wasting time on projects that are going nowhere. Have a go – think of one of your ambitions, write down three benefits of succeeding, but then pause and consider the three main obstacles in your way, and write those down, too. Going through this routine will help ensure you direct your motivation and energy where it’s needed most, and help you identify if this particular goal is a non-starter. It’s worth noting, however, that mental contrasting works best as a counter-point to high morale and expectations of success. When you’re feeling confident, it ensures your positive energy is channelled strategically into the tasks and activities that are essential for progress. (If you’re feeling low and struggling to get going on any project at all, then this is not the technique for you.)

Positive Feedback as a Multiplier for Progress

One scenario when we’re likely to be flush with confidence and optimism is after receiving positive feedback. In a more recent study, Gabriele Oettingen and her colleagues tested the value of mental contrasting in a simulation of just such a situation.

By thinking realistically about the obstacles to success, it helps us pick challenges that we’re likely to win and avoid wasting time.

Dozens of volunteers took part in what they thought was an investigation into creativity. Half the study participants were given false feedback on a test of their creative potential, with their results inflated to suggest that they’d excelled. In advance of the main challenge – a series of creative insight problems – some of the participants were then taught mental contrasting: writing about how good it would feel to smash the problems, and then writing about the likely obstacles to achieving that feat, such as daydreaming. The best performers on the insight problems were those participants who’d received the positive feedback about their potential and who’d performed mental contrasting. They out-classed their peers who’d received inflated feedback but only indulged in positive thoughts, and they outperformed those participants who’d received negative feedback (regardless of whether they, too, performed mental contrasting). So, the next time you receive some positive feedback, don’t lose your focus. Indulge yourself a little – you’re on track after all – but also take time to think about the obstacles that remain, and the practical steps you’ll need to enact to overcome them. The mental contrasting technique guards against complacency, ensuring the boost of your early win is multiplied into long-term success. — What’s Your Take?
 Have you found success in visualizing obstacles when making plans? How did it work out?

More Posts by Christian Jarrett

Dr. Christian Jarrett seeks out exciting new research and showcases its relevance for life. A psychologist turned writer, he’s a senior editor at Aeon. His next book will be about personality change. He is @Psych_Writer on Twitter.

Comments (191)
  • Angelique

    Remember how you used the words “small-minded, theophobic and bigoted” earlier against Johnny? You’re not theophobic, that’s for sure. But I have to say that small-mindedness seems to be something you breed on. I’m not trying to be mean, but going through a lot of your comments is enough to make me realize and to make it necessary enough to point out that you are the one who is intolerant, hysterical and narrow-minded. Your hysteria is that you’re afraid that either a) you are wrong, or b) you can’t get everyone to agree with you.

    You should stop projecting your fears. And stop pretending that you are the holiest one on the planet. People are free to believe what they want, and yes, some believes may be wrong. But who are you to judge what is right and wrong? The worst of people are those who are judgmental. Judgments, ignorance and intolerance along with discrimination are the main causes of war and downfall.

  • Angelique

    You should watch Michael Moore documentaries. He might be able to help you realize that you are being fooled by your government and that a lot of the paranoia and fear and intolerance that some of your fellow Americans face are part of a bigger capitalist plan.

    Note: I’m not against Capitalism nor am I against Americans. But I do think the US government is superficial. Believe me. Don’t believe me. Your choice really. It’s the same in other parts of the world too, like Singapore.

  • A

    When my friend first suggested me to read this article, I must admit I was a tad bit skeptical. I thought, “how can negative thinking be positive”? But after reading this article I realized that it talks about the same principles that I have held on to, only better and coined differently.

    I believe that THINKING POSITIVE and BEING POSITIVE are two different things. If thinking positive is believing that you can achieve something big with ease and without any hassle, that’s just being foolish, and thus is negative. Being positive is about knowing that no matter what happens, it can’t be bad enough for you to not handle. It may be hard to handle but possible. And thinking realistically falls under being positive.

  • A

    well said. 🙂

  • yippeekayay

    You should watch old Soviet propaganda films. They might help you realize that Stalinism was beautiful and that everyone was happy, healthy and completely fulfilled and satisfied.

    Seriously. I have watched some Michael Moore material. To anyone who actually really knows America, the lies at the base of all his intellectual constructs are transparent. But to people who think they know America because they listen to Al Gore and Michael Moore and other leftist extremists, those “documentaries” (I’d call them propaganda) are just silly.

    I don’t have to believe your opinions of America vs the rest of the world. I’ve traveled, lived and worked all over the world. I know America is a great nation and only because of the Judeo-Christian values at its core. The more America is cajoled, coerced, badgered and bullied into forsaking those values, the more America will be weak and unsafe, like most of the rest of the world.

    And as to Singapore, I enjoy the freedom to carry as much chewing gum with me as I like, do you?

  • PHAT Armadillo

    So I guess what you’re saying is that’s why jesus helped the helpless, because GOD didn’t want too, because they couldn’t help themselves, so they weren’t worthy of GOD. (total BS)

  • PHAT Armadillo

    Thinking positive and self delusion are two very different things. Most people seem to believe their own self diluted “positive” thinking and not realistically analyzing the challenges that prevent their success.

  • Mistress Didi* Blackthorn

    your guess is based on your extreme limitations and your need to insist on being right at any costs, including demonstrating a lack of reading comprehension skill – which will keep you in a miserable cycle of mediocrity. Worthiness begins with self-worth and those people who fight so hard to disprove a God/dess are worse than the most idiotic, religious zealot who NEEDS so desperately to prove others wrong because its the only way they can feel a sense of any kind of worth.

    All philosophies based on Intelligent Observation instruct Us not to waste time “casting pearls before swine”. Intelligent people take what is useful with the purpose of being and having better in Life. So, I take that advice and choose not to bother wasting any more of My precious time in paces and on those who are too lazy to do anything to improve themselves and their lives except whine and try to play the make-wrong-game in order to feel alive.

    My life IS wonderful because I 1) believe in Possibility; 2) refuse anyone else’s interpretations of God/dess or anything else I enjoy and experience as Truth in My Individual Experience; 3) pity those who choose mediocrity on all levels and I waste no time on things with no value to Me; and 4) I do the work to honor the Gift of Life – including a healthy diet and exercise program which all these internet slackers should engage in – rather than wasting Life by operating from lizard-brain thinking – look it up.

    I also do not blab-about on the internet without researching the people I choose to address – providing they actually have something of value on the internet…

    I have no attachment to anyone doing, believing, etc. anything because I am responsible for and in My Life. Those who lack personal responsibility for their own lives always attack – not discuss – for the purpose of the make-wrong-game, as I stated above. This is the coward’s, lazy way of avoiding personal responsibility to improve his own existence.

    I pity people who choose such a limited existence because all they have is jealousy, self-loathing, and depression.

    I’m done here and have no attachment to others needing to have the last word.

  • MozMoz3000

    This is an article about science. God has no place in the discussion of this topic because unfortunately, until God becomes a variable you can actually use in scientific study, he has to stay the hell out.

    Leave it to God. Imagine if we left everything to God. Nothing would get done.

  • Madison Maze

    This article has a sensationalist lure which I don’t care for. Additionally, its title is The Power of Negative thinking, which is inaccurate. The data reviewed relays that it is not negative thinking that has power, but rather that exploring possible obstacles, preparing for them, and mentally overcoming their possibilities beforehand helps. That is not a definition of negative thinking by any means. That is positive thinking. One is simply problem solving and becoming more mentally prepared. Negative thinking would be to consider how one is unworthy, can’t ever do it, it’s too hard, I’m too fat, etc.

  • JAC

    I have frequently been accused of being negative…told that my negativity itself will ensure a bad result. I truly do not see myself as negative…just realistic. I don’t sugarcoat. My realism has always helped me understand the hard work needed to overcome the result I do not want to happen. I feel terribly misunderstood.

  • Salina Gomez

    Enjoyed the post – I agree that simply thinking does not create your reality – you do need to take the actions to achieve your goals. The positive thinking should ‘motivate’ you..not hinder you in accepting that something will eventually just happen..

    Salina Gomez

  • ccz1

    I believe “Focus – Use Different Ways of Seeing the World for Success and Influence” from Heidi Holvorson and Tory Higgins, can shed more light on the subject

  • anonymous

    Who the hell are you to suggest that God ahs to stay the hell out of this discussion?! You’re not His boss. So why don’t you watch your damn mouth?!

    • God

      Shut up, you’re embarassing me.

  • anonymous

    Excuse me but sometimes negative thinking is necessary. If you’re positive all the tie, you could be blind to badness.

  • anonymous

    I meant “time” instead of “tie.”

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