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Productivity

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)
  • Rebekah Fraser

    Through positive thinking and visualization, I have made many things happen. However, few of them happened exactly as I envisioned. Anticipating challenges, and proactively and flexibly pivoting and responding to obstacles has helped me to succeed. It’s a learning process, and I’m knee deep in it, with a new venture funded in part by a grant from the International Women’s Media Foundation.

  • Christian Jarrett

    Hi Tim, it’s Christian Jarrett here, I wrote the article. Thanks for your comments. You suggest that “the study has no real credence” and that “the write up is just from a press release”. This article is in fact based on three scientific papers published in peer-reviewed journals – one was published in 2010, the other two were published this year. All are from the lab of Gabriele Oettingen at NYU. I’ve been following her interesting work for several years. I drew on the findings from these three particular papers to write this piece for 99U. I tried to present the main findings in plain English and convey what relevance, taken together, they might have for real life. You sound particularly concerned with the definitions of positive and negative thought. Of course this website is not an academic journal and in the title of my piece and throughout the article, the use of these terms are for the most part colloquial. Consider – if a friend asked me how my latest project was going and I proceeded to tell them about all the obstacles in my way, they might respond that I was being a little negative. In turn I could retort that I was just being realistic. But of course these are just labels and judgments. Throughout the article I gave examples to illustrate what was meant by any terms used.

  • Christian Jarrett

    hi Job, the point is really that we shouldn’t be afraid to spend time thinking about the hurdles in our way. Some people might say it’s negative to do that. But as long as we’re confident, it actually pays to weigh up obstacles against more positive thoughts about how great it would be to succeed. The studies that follow people over time show that performing this contrast actually leads to more success in the long-run.

  • Christian Jarrett

    hi Narong – yes, telling yourself that you will succeed is a form of positive thinking. It can be comforting to have those kinds of thoughts, but they can also have a less welcome effect. Imagine you have a presentation to give. Telling yourself that you’ll do great and picturing yourself doing great can sometimes be too effective, so that you feel you don’t need to put in the time to prepare. That’s where mental contrasting is important – thinking about how good it will feel to give that killer talk, but also making sure you focus on the practicalities of what you need to get done to make that super talk a reality – e.g. rehearsing, preparing slides, researching etc.

  • Floyd Lawson

    I never believed that touchy-feely overly positive mumbo jumbo in the first place. All the “self-help” philosophy in the world won’t help you get things done. In fact, if you spend all your time reading self-help books and listening to self-help lectures, you’re going to get absolutely NOTHING done.

    Just put on your pants and get out there and work.

  • brunei

    that’s the point of religion for me, that others miss. We are indeed our own god

  • brunei

    exactly I agree. I’m not a follower of religion but a believer that god ( not as a seperate entity) is within us. We are all gods.

  • brunei

    knowledge is power. ACTION is even more powerful

  • brunei

    I think alot of what athletes and military teaches would benefit us all

  • brunei

    Thanks for that! Interesting way to set goals. Hadn’t thought of it like this before. Actually, reading back, it’s pretty damn awesome

  • Zik Ukaeje

    Knowledge is power, only if remembered and applied.

  • brunei

    the bigger danger is if everyone had their own business they’d be no employees left. The world would be in a far worse place than it is now. Realistically speaking, not everyone is an entrpreneur. Some are better at working/ serving

  • lisa

    Agreed. Visualizing obstacles allows you to make plans in how you will deal with them. First in a practical sense, how you might try to go around or over the obstacle, and second how you might deal with them emotionally, so that you stay strong and motivated.

  • kelley havey

    Everyday I want to start a new business. Problem is that I am a starter and not a finisher. I get distracted with another project and its a vicious cycle; as in my world everything is possible.

  • Lena Scott

    I like the last three lines especially.

  • Kathleen Grace

    I had it drilled into me that I needed to visualize things as I wanted them, and struggled with that until I could finally make it happen, and then to be quite honest, the world started falling apart. Once I had those in my mind, I couldn’t create them that I had a perception of what I wanted and kept working/seeking them and I came to realize that I missed opportunity after opportunity because i was looking for something that didn’t look like what I saw. I’ve come to think it’s dangerous and impractical, that I’d rather feel what I feel and deal with the anger/frustration/challenge and get to a place I didn’t expect, than to while away time looking for what I don’t see.

  • ny

    this is very true, i feel better when i don’t think positive.

  • TheVoiceOfReason

    How much do you know about Islam? There’s only one God.

  • Parin Patel

    Interesting research and article. Personally, I get a tremendous amount of energy when I visualize the end goal. I also find it gives me more focus.

    But, one crucial part to that, like you mentioned, is identifying the obstacles. And that’s where having some form of plan of action comes into play.

    And that’s where I like Zig Ziglar’s goal setting approach:

    1) Write it down
    2) Put a date on it
    3) Identify the obstacles
    4) Identify the people, the groups you need to work with
    5) Find out what it is you need to know
    6) Develop a plan of action
    7) Write down “what’s in it for me?”
    8) Write all of the above down

    Cheers!
    Parin

  • Parin Patel

    Love that story!

  • Vikalp Patel

    well said article. .. 🙂 really helped me!!

  • Erik Balck

    There is definitive some truth to this article. You can’t imagine your goals too intense without acctually starting to think you’re already achieved them. However, I think it is helpful to stop and think about your goals from time to time to see that they are congruent with your persona.

  • Randolph Fabian Directo

    “Negative Thinking” is a misnomer. I like to think of it as “realistic thinking.” Realistic thinking is where experience of the obstacles comes into play. The real problem is where there is competition, there are people with experience who “kick rocks” on newbies w/o experience of those obstacles. From my experience, people with experience who “kick rocks” down onto others are the second biggest obstacle. The first biggest obstacle is fear.

  • Yasmine

    After reading this article and (most of) the comments I went back to the 99u homepage and clicked on a link to watch a portfolio page… on this page I saw a video that’s in line with the message of the article so for those of you who hadn’t seen it yet:
    http://www.behance.net/gallery

  • seo freelancer

    There is no progress without learned ‘negative’ life stories.

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