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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)
  • VladimirAntonov

    sober planning and keeping in mind possible obstacles is always good! but focusing on them more then visualizing your goals achieved is a really bad idea. For me, personally, visualizing goals is only give me energy and strength to achieve them… because you always see your real world and know what should be done during next steps.

  • Neil

    I’m a sales person. I generally picture success based on the potential that is possible i.e. looking at pipeline and potential outcome and adding a realistic view on how things can turn out. Recently I have been working very hard on one project which begun in August and is due to end 3 weeks time. My picture was very positive indeed, also actively reinforced by my peers which added more confidence in me achieving my goals. Early on there was every signal for achievement. Later, what I forgot was to factor in holidays/vacations of prospects during the summer which would dramatically reduce the number of points of contact. I and the team are now in a situation of scrambling for business wherever and however we can get it within a much limited amount of time, more-so convince prospects that my product will help them beat the recession in a long time and worse helping them realise that they can prepare for our service/product within this short time-frame.

    Whist its great to have a positive look at your achievement vs goals, its even more important to plan more adequately and that will certainly help to avoid so many obstacles.
    I’m not superstitious but someone wish me and the team good luck!
    Go well

  • andrewarmour

    Excellent piece Christian…

    Thanks for sharing this useful research …
    The whole positive thinking philosophy is often misunderstood, over cooked and over promoted. The financial crisis and the huge failure of most new products testifies to what happens when an optimism bias (see Tali Sharot’s work on this) can cloud our judgement…
    In the same way that the whole excited brainstorming process can feel right – but actually achieve little. Negativity, problem identification and rational enquiry is part of the process. Its healthy. It should be embraced – not dismissed in the clamour for ‘oh lets be positive!’
    The smartest and most successful creative people I have met are not positive about everything all the time. They often are peeved that things are not right, annoyed with others and themselves and identify flaws in approaches, not matter how positive they seem…And the best advice I ever learnt from a very senior media executive (music and film business) – was ‘don’t fall in love with your idea. Take a step back’. So easy to fall in love with what may happen, with a good wind and lots of luck – and not what reality and past experience suggest is more likely…
    I now favour and promote the use of tricky questions, open debate – and curious scenarios, to foster insights and solutions – and use CollaborationCafe to ensure that teams have the right conversations, not just the ones that feel comfortable. It does not mean that people are dismissive, abrupt, close minded, but an ability to think critically..
    Andrew Armour

  • Drunker

    Negative thinking >>>>> Drink+drugs. Better realism

    Virtue is the middle course

  • Caroline

    For me, that’s great, as long as visualising the possible negatives doesn’t stop people from attempting anything at all! I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having dreams. It’s something to strive for and even if you don’t get all the way to where you want to be, you’ve been going for it. It’s who you’re being, not what you achieve that’s important.

  • Roger

    You might interpret the opposite of lack of self consciousness as a connection to God.

    But you can interpret it as you wish.

  • Bill Bean

    I knew if I lived long enough a study would show up to support my approach. At least I”m not merely cynical.

  • John Grantner

    Summing it all up, god is not a person, god is an idea. God doesn’t
    literally help anybody, because god can’t and doesn’t do that. ‘God’
    (for lack of a better single agreed upon term) is the universal norms of
    behavior and ethics in Human culture. All of the scriptures are an
    analogy of that overarching idea. I believe in one god, and it (not he
    or she) is this.

  • MartySK

    I set attainable goals. If, for example, you are a salesman, you can’t guarantee how many people you’ll call on today or how many sales you’ll make. You can set a goal of working from, say, 9:00 to 4:00. If you do it, you are a winner.
    Said another way, you can flap your arms forever, as hard as you can but you will never fly. Set goals that are attainable.

  • Carrie Carlson

    I am a huge fan of positive thinking…negative thinking just depresses people and turns into a lack of motivation. Being realistic though, is the key to it all. I have to argue with this article as far as negative thinking goes. Weigh your pros and cons always, yes, and never get so overconfident with positive thinking that your head is in the clouds and your blinded to the obstacles life throws at you, for sure. I totally agree on realism, not negativity. Life is best lived and success achieved by thinking positively, just know that there will always be obstacles to overcome, that’s life. Don’t be fooled, any other logic is just unrealistic.

  • Carrie Carlson

    Everyone is entitled to their opinion but some are best kept quiet. 😉

  • Mistress Didi* Blackthorn

    I used the term “God” because the masses aren’t as savvy as you are. However, most people will push their “God” agenda no matter what the subject of the conversation is…

  • Kerem Gogus

    Most nonsense BS I’ve ever read. Since everyone is totally ignorant
    about the teachings of the great people lived in the past like Napoleon
    Hill, Wallace Wattles, Dr. Joseph Murphy, Dr. David Schwartz, Charles Haanel and James Allen, it’s actually quite normal that
    most of the people below wrote even more nonsense comments about this total BS article. But keep it
    that way, I’ll have plenty of room for myself on the top.

  • Mistress Didi* Blackthorn

    Exactly. I am a Goddess and Creatrix of My own reality because I am responsible for My actions, etc. Most people are incorrect to presume that when a person uses the term, “God,” that She is referring to YOUR interpretation/limitations of the concept – which is always based on negative experiences of religious fanaticism somewhere in people’s lives. To be able to get passed one’s self-defeating limitations is what this post is alluding to and something that people who choose to cooperate with their environments (people, Nature, etc.) are successful at achieving. Others simply argue their points to prove themselves right in remaining limited.

  • Mistress Didi* Blackthorn

    How annoying that an article that has nothing to do with the concept of God has comments gong completely off-topic by the mere mention of the term…

  • Elizabeth Saunders

    I love the point of the fact that a key component of resilience is to not see difficulties as dooming the entire project.

    With everything we face we can ask ourselves, is there anything I can do about this now? If so, then do those things. If not, then move on and focus on what you can control.

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • Wade

    I like the article. Everyone is different. We are not all wired the same way. Vince Lombardi was a great football coach, partly because he understood that some of his players needed a kick in the rear and some needed a pat on the back to be their best. I do best when someone tells me that I can’t do something. The desire to prove them wrong feeds me through the difficulties. Praise doesn’t have that effect. When I’m told that I can do something, hurdles seem like walls.

    I guess for me, what has worked best is proper focus. Plan your goal. Look at what you need to do. See the big picture then daily, work on the minutia.

    When I wanted to get back into shape (I was a mess) I joined the gym. I went every day. I wore baggy sweats to hide my body. I just kept going and working. I didn’t worry about where I was in my fitness. I just kept at it. After about 1 1/2 years, I was going every day still…but I was wearing Under Armor shirts to show off my abs. If you look too far ahead, the finish line seems so far away.

    If you think you’re done…you’ll stop. Stay focused my friends!

  • April

    I think you missed the meaning of positive vs negative thinking; what you’re talking about is optimism/pessimism/realism.

    Positive thinking is believing that you’ll find a solution no matter what obstacles lie in your path, not imagining that nothing bad will ever happen.

  • JohnnySmith0

    Visualizing your great success is the height of narcissism. And it will only disappoint you if you don’t succeed.

  • lolly

    If it was like that, then it is allowed to do what every human thinks is right for him (because all humans has different pic of the world in his mind) and then it become misunderstandings in this world – people’s roads intersect and collide… and when people do believe in one God then all roads drive parallel to the ONE center – the God himself! (sorry for my bad English)

  • JohnnySmith0

    It was good until it said “leave it to God”.

  • Robert Mayers

    To all who are talking AT each other rather than talking WITH each other regarding the subject of ‘god’: First, define your terms, then we can all stop our self-interested, off-topic comments of advocating or opposing.

    The term, ‘god’ is simply used to answer the thus far unanswered so lets avoid giving answers without showing our workings.

  • Jenny DevilDoll

    LOL I hadn’t “visualized” an article or research pretty much confirming what I thought all along. Considering obstacles you might face is the first step to figuring out what needs to be done to deal with them. Thanks for this!

  • Jenny DevilDoll

    Early new thought and new thought-related names? No, everyone is not “totally ignorant”, they just see flaws in the beliefs, and even more vicious undercurrents of victim blamig and classism.

  • Jenny DevilDoll

    Or maybe realism is for people who don’t have the class privilege to move to London and start their own company to try and figure out another means to achieve their goals. Willfull blindness to the uneven playing field is the most mediocre lie most people are taught to keep them in their “place”.

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