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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)
  • Ron

    Nothing new…it’s called a reality check. You shouldn’t jump blissfully into the water until you have checked for sharks.

  • Job

    I don’t understand the point of this article. Everyone already thinks negatively, always. The point about positive outlook was to break away from the natural realistic view of negativity. Doubt is a constant thing in everyones lives, having hope takes effort while thinking negatively just takes a little thought.

  • Jayson Lo

    I love this article. It may be a spin off, but it articulated very well how we should visualize our goals and dreams in life. Mental Contrasting simply means “Dreaming while Staying Awake.”

    I wrote a short blog about a similar concept from the book Great by Choice by Jim Collins called Productive Paranoia. It depicts Bill Gates as a negative person, yet because of this, he was able to prepare for any obstacle that Microsoft would eventually face by being paranoid about possible problems. Sometimes, it pays to be negative.

  • cirsqutri

    Quit visualizing…Start doing!

  • Neil Van Leeuwen

    On a related note, check out “Self-Deception Won’t Make You Happy”!

  • John A. Hoda

    Lets count the number of great ideas that have come about after “running it by legal” or “running it by the compliance officer. Yeah, I came up with the same number. 😉
    John Hoda

  • Drew Ostry

    I always fall back on what I learned in the military: Practice & prepare for what will go wrong (things always do). It saves time, money, heartache & even lives. It’s not about being a negative person, just realistic.

  • shibby

    a mind in motion stays in motion until stopped by a cognitive change in direction

  • lou

    Dissapointing article.

  • Mistress Didi* Blackthorn

    Just remember that God helps those who help themselves – meaning TAKE ACTION.

  • Clemens

    D’accord to everything except the last three lines. Leave it to who?! We ourselves don’t know for ourselves what’s good or bad luck? Now that’s realism …

  • Denise Cavassa, CMA

    That approach has been around waaaaaay before certain people came out of the caves… LOL!

  • Quinnton Harris

    My thoughts exactly.

  • Chu Man

    its all about weighing up ALL the options, being positive about the eventual outcome, but also being realistic about problems which may well be encountered. maybe no problems will be encountered, but at least you’ll be ready and will have a solution to deal with them efficiently if they do occur.

  • Ashley Cameron

    It’s all a matter of perspective and perspective in realities. It’s important to make tangible goals and deadlines for yourself. If you’re really unhappy with something and have the ability or resources to change it, make the change. Otherwise, you’re allowing yourself the leeway to complain and live in your own misery. It’s great to have dreams and visions–but start with what you can handle. Procrastination and getting started are the first hurdles. Positive reinforcement is definitely encouraging, but if you find that’s all you’re receiving, it’s time for a challenge.

  • Danielle from Santa Monica

    I’ve always thought this and nice to see it written so well- I will wave it in front of all I know with a hearty “I told you so” lol thanks

  • Frank

    Or meaning… there is no god.

  • Widarto Adi

    positive thinking is about awareness, and negative thinking is part of it. both is best tool for aware and conscious of our goal.

    I think the the side effect of positive thinking you want to avoid is being way too much pouring spirit on self confidence, self confidence is important, but if you having too much of it you may lost the focus on your goal.

    And I don’t think having a negative thinking is like being aware of the fallacy of our goal, that kind of negative thinking is more like you don’t have enough self confidence to convince your self that your project going to succeed.

  • wialno28

    Exactly. The story completely fell apart when the author decided to appeal to metaphysical mumbo-jumbo. And if Didi’s god only helps her when she helps herself, what does she need the god for. If her statement is true, she is her own god.

  • sltomsik

    Know the story well… very old. Point is, no single event is 100% beneficial, and no misfortune is 100% harmful or evil. For everything you try to do, there are costs, imperfect results, learning growth, and for every set-back or failure, there are small wins, benefits — we want to be as children who think in black and white, yes or now, and life plays out in complex patterns that just don’t give us that.

  • Arunas

    I used to find all of this positive imagery thing a fake. Now there is some proof;) Anyway, rather than talk in abstract terms I will talk what has REALLY kicked me (a procrasctinaor/perfecionist) into action.
    Once I saw a headline which involved words “e-publishing”. I cant describe what i felt at the moment, even without knowing if this was relevant to my business or not. I felt panic, anger, etc… so every time Im not doing anything with my big idea, I tell myself “Imagine (after all of those months of thinking) how you would feel reading the lines in a newspaper “Company X launches (YOUR big idea).” To me, there is no bigger motivator, I jump up… and then get down… to WORK REAL HARD;)

  • wes23

    Interesting article, and very true, in my opinion. Just believing that everything will be okay doesn’t necessarily make it so.

  • Guz Forster

    Nice article… But “The positive imagery can be inspiring at first but it also tricks the mind into relaxing, as if the hard work is done.” – you gotta be retarded do think that way when you actually want something done. It may be even impossible… You just gotta be realistic.

  • romel dias

    which is what eastern spiritualism keeps trying to drill into us..and something that I believe even Jesus tried to explain…God is within us…not as an external…but intrinsically as each one of us..we are all gods and we can only achieve greatness when we understand and believe it! Greatness of course is not material…even small things can be great…greatness with your garden…greatness as a father..greatness as a social worker…not being pure gold..but achieving it inspite of our feet of clay!

  • HectorBlitz

    In a business book by James C. Collins called Good to Great, Collins writes about a conversation he had with Stockdale regarding his coping strategy during his period in the Vietnamese POW camp.[10]
    I never lost faith in the end of the story, I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.”[11]
    When Collins asked who didn’t make it out of Vietnam, Stockdale replied:
    Oh, that’s easy, the optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.”[11]
    Stockdale then added:
    This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”[11]
    Witnessing this philosophy of duality, Collins went on to describe it as the Stockdale Paradox.

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