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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)
  • amphetkid

    Completely agree, people see it as pessimism and tell you to stop causing problems, but by looking for the issues at the beginning means you can architect around them or remove them early on.

    It comes down to whether product/project managers are willing to accept that problems do occur and not just the creation of the awkward architect to justify their existence.

  • Maris Olsen

    Totally agree. Looking at both sides of the “creativity coin” is essential. For me, writing down both the goal AND the potential blocks is also important – rather than just letting the thoughts swirl in my head. It helps make the goal and the process more concrete. One additional step that can be helpful is brainstorming with another person what some of the obstacles might be. Sometimes we “solopreneurs” like to focus more on the rosy future, and having a trusted friend point out some problems can also be grounding.

    Thanks for the nice post!

  • Narong Heng

    It seemed the words “Negative Thinking” at title has different implying when think of the opposite words “positive thinking” From the most that I heard from positive people, Positive Thinking doesn’t mean daydreaming as the article implied it means we believe we will achieve, get through what ever obstacles that comes in our way. So the title still should be “Power of Positive Thinking” Just my thought, anyone can disagree. Good article though. Thank you.

  • Steve H-B

    I completely agree with the thrust and the message of the of the post but I’d like to point out that this research is actually only a re-spin of some of the observations that Viktor Frankl made in his book Man’s Search for Meaning.

    One of the things that Frankl noticed was that many of the people who just lay down and died in the concentration camps gave up hope. Some of the ones who were overly optimistic also couldn’t handle the knock backs that they received during their captivity which in turn led them to just lay down and give up.

    He observed that the people best prepared to survive the experiences not only projected themselves into being in a better place, they also saw themselves when they were there looking back on the trials and hardships that they would have to have survived to be there, thus reinforcing their own self-belief that they were survivors.

  • Richard Batista

    Great Article!

  • Michael F

    This gives some credence to the Zig Ziglar model of goal setting & accomplishment. Once you have selected the goals to work on, you list the benefits of reaching the goal, then list the skills or knowledge required to reach the goal, then list the major obstacles & mountains to climb to reach the goal, then list the individuals and organizations needed to help reach the goal, and finally, a plan to reach the goal and a due date. I’m glad to see that research is validating a process that’s been around since Lou Holz was the head football coach at Arkansas.

  • Darren Paul Azzopardi

    I’ve always believed thinking positive is not being ignorant and hoping for the best out come but by being 100% aware of what could go wrong. So addressing them and aligning them with possible solutions, you are thinking positively, not just pissing in the wind and hoping for the best.

  • larry capra aka zenabowli

    Ya can’t just walk the mountain tops… ya gotta walk the valleys too. Something I learned while pack packing. Visualize your goals. But, critical thinking is our most valuable tool for the journey. Human persistence takes us further than wishful thinking.

  • Petr

    Don’t forget this important line: “mental contrasting works best as a counter-point to high morale and expectations of success.”

  • Willem-Paul Koenen

    Nice, Good to stay aware of what works and what not. Important tho that in more advanced stages of coaching they use that technique they use something else aswell. In NLP (NeuroLinguisticProgramming) they use the term associated and dissociated. Associated is experiencing as if it is now and you are totally in it. Dissociated is stepping out and looking at it from a distance. When they do the exercise to vision and also feel and hear and totally experience how it is to have and really be. then after is has become compelling it is really important to step out of that experience and after being associated now being disociated. so that the experience becomes a magnet in the future. and is not something that stays like it is already there. good stuff tho when done in a great way.

  • FluxAppeal

    Great article and responses here. I, too, never quite bought into the whole ‘dream it and it will come’ philosophy, which I believe leads to complacency. Anyway, it’s never worked for me because my analytical self is always looking at the road and how to get to the end of it. I believe this approach is much more balanced and leads to action, which reinforces self-esteem.

  • Dan Jak

    I agree. While staying positive we have to analyse all of the potential obstacles. This is the only way to move forward.

  • Ibanez Juan

    Wonderful account.

  • Roger

    There is no negativity in realism. Also, there is a lot of false realism in the world. And the place where the most debilitating false realism occurs is with lack of self consciousness.

    I always remember this chinese story when people talk about optimism and pessimism:

    There is a Chinese story of a farmer who used an old horse to till his fields. One day, the horse escaped into the hills and when the farmer’s neighbors sympathized with the old man over his bad luck, the farmer replied, “Bad luck? Good luck? Who knows?” A week later, the horse returned with a herd of horses from the hills and this time the neighbors congratulated the farmer on his good luck. His reply was, “Good luck? Bad luck? Who knows?”Then, when the farmer’s son was attempting to tame one of the wild horses, he fell off its back and broke his leg. Everyone thought this very bad luck. Not the farmer, whose only reaction was, “Bad luck? Good luck? Who knows?”Some weeks later, the army marched into the village and conscripted every able-bodied youth they found there. When they saw the farmer’s son with his broken leg, they let him off. Now was that good luck or bad luck?Who knows?Everything that seems on the surface to be an evil may be a good in disguise. And everything that seems good on the surface may really be an evil. So we are wise when we leave it to God to decide what is good fortune and what misfortune, and thank him that all things turn out for good with those who love him.

  • OGiDesigns

    I wouldn’t call taking into account your [possible] hurdles along the way as negative thinking but smart planning. I picture the end result and then I map out what it would take to get there.

  • Maureen E. Mc Bride

    Positive thinking is not the same as magical thinking.

  • Chakib Tsouli

    Reminds me of the saying about the three guys, Realistic, Optimistic and Pessimistic, the Optimistic was arguing with the Pessimistic whether the glass of wine is half full, or half empty … But the Realistic just came in, and with no waste of time, he drank it.

  • cl

    It’s not that positive thinking per se can be negative, rather, that positive thinking plus naivete, or positive thinking minus hard work, can be negative.

    But yeah, if you don’t do the groundwork, your positive thoughts are just daydreams.

  • Anurag Sharma

    I am kind of confused by the post. The post looks confused itself. You are trying to mix up two things those are completely separate: Conscious and Subconscious. When you visualize your goals as achieved then you are activating your subconscious mind. The science behind that is when your subconscious mind “knows” that it has been achieved it will start attracting/creating situations those are congenial to your process of achieving that goal. The subconscious mind is supposed to work on its own. When you start thinking about obstacles then you are breaking from the process of activating your subconscious mind and venturing into the logical conscious mind. It might work. It might not work. But don’t confuse this as “visualization”. Visualization deals with only subconscious.

    The results indicated here only show that people get lazy when they think that the subconscious mind will do everything they visualized. It is known fact that nothing can substitute hard work. If you just sit at one place thinking you are going to get it, then you are going to fail. This is irrespective and independent of the way you are trying to achieve you goal: Consciously or Subconsciously. I would take it as a proof that laziness fails you. Nothing more that than. Nothing to do with visualization.

  • Emma Cook

    Here’s a book dedicated to this very subject –… – Smile or Die.

    There are so many pitfalls with constant ‘positive thinking’ – when things are crap and there isn’t a way out (not instantly) then i’ve been snubbed by people & friends because i’m showing my human side.

    It’s ok to have s**t days and it’s ok to be down. This idea that being happy all the bloody time will cure and sort everything needs to be stomped out. Air brushing life isn’t healthy and it won’t get you what you want in the end. You’re only delaying the inevitable and living a shallow life.

  • Cody Burleson

    Thinking of obstacles, anticipating challenges, and planning for resistance is not “negative” thinking. It’s “smart” thinking.

  • A S Photography

    I agree with much of the article
    the current practice of encouraging everyone to become entrepreneurs is ok to an extent – and I wouldn’t want to rain on people’s parade without due cause – BUT – we all need a reality check periodically – and part of that is about seeing obstacles realistically – and recognizing limits of one’s abilities – and creativity
    its a tricky balance between the two – but a necessary one

  • Yelena Yanich

    The way popular culture interprets positive thinking is actually incomplete. In reality the positive thinking is not excluding negative. It is positive intention that matters. If you envision success you are more likely to get there. But, envisioning it alone does not get you anywhere, in fact it prevents you from succeeding. The problem is the positive thinking without effort is easier sell. People tend to buy into easier fixes. What happens then? negative thinking is labeled as destructive alone. So both dogmas are empty of what is needed – REALISTIC THINKING! It is hard to get there because the reality is negative and positive. Success comes from leaning into positive based on reality. So positive thinking is neither all wrong or all right. Without both negative and positive reality is missed. Success happens in reality…. no matter what label you use for the reality and how you think it, it is what matters at the end

  • Tim

    A good indicator that a study has no real credence, and that the write up is just from a press release intended for marketing purposes, is when the title and words being used to form a perception are inconsistent with what’s actually being said.

    Right off the bat ‘visualization techniques’ are being confused with ‘positive thinking’, which is not the same thing at all. In fact, for psychologists, I do not get the sense from this article that they have a good understanding of the difference between what should be considered positive and negative thought.
    As an example, positive thought is a a mental attitude of believing in yourself (and others) no matter what, and having the confidence to confront your fears and hurdles, knowing that you could fail or make a bad decision, but if you do, take it as a learning experience and get up and try again.
    Negative thought is self defeating thoughts, self destructive attitudes, giving up before you have even started, or because it gets too hard, it didn’t work out the first time or you can’t face your fears.
    When you consider this, it’s obvious that this study is not about positive and negative thinking at all, which is an inner process that involves intent and can not be faked or forced.
    This study shows how people respond to certain situations within our western culture based on our cultural conditioning. If anything, it shows how we are taught to rely on and respond to outside feedback and guidance, subconsciously looking for a pet on the head and being able to go and play with the toys because we finished doing our 3 times table already.
    This, rather than use our own intuition as an internal guidance system to make positive decisions. By ‘thinking realistically and choosing challenges’, is NOT an opposite to positive thinking. However, refusing to accept any challenges because they are too hard, or decisions based on what someone else thinks you should do, most certainly is.


    Positive thinking is about attitude as well as action. Visualising helps to stay motivated and focused. Realism is for mediocre people. Had I ever been realistic I wouldn’t have moved to London or have my own company now. If we don’t push our boundaries and aren’t willing to go further than anyone else has then we might as well accept to be average at best. However, positive thinking is not about ignoring problems or being oblivious of what’s going on. It’s accepting the status quo, finding solutions and moving beyond it with a focus on a positive outcome.

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