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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)
  • Brad Forbes… –recommended reading for anyone who wants to dive deeper into this field of psychology (without psychologically getting too wet!).

  • mb

    seriously? Thank yahweh Im agnostic because you are very disillusion

  • Laurence Smith

    Good post but a slightly incongruous headline. Aim high but expect setbacks but always expect you’ll get there.

  • Milan Reinartz

    Great article! You guys serious bringing god into this??? Haha 😀

  • yippeekayay

    Let’s see, World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, uh Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, the Kims and all the other genocidal communists or nazi despots in Africa and Asia throughout the 20th century…. all attributable to various forms of socialism gone awry. Do you even know how many people Stalin alone was responsible for killing? Thank your God that you are human and use the brain he gave you to understand history, friend.

  • yippeekayay

    Hahaha. That is so like the leaf going, at least a leaf is real as opposed to “Big invisible Root/Trunk Daddy”. Or like a drop going “Oooh, Big Invisble Cloud Daddy”. How hillarious.

  • yippeekayay

    Different 90%s johnny0. (I’m sure johnny can read by now with all that “socialism” helping him all these years. Isn’t there a teacher to thank in your life somewhere?) My 90% was about the percentage of people prior to the 20th century who took it for granted that God made the world. Maybe you think they were all stupid?

  • yippeekayay

    Testable facts are pointless without logic. Logically speaking: if design and purpose and personality are the ultimate realities of the universe (as opposed to randomness, chaos, impersonality etc. the evolutionist’s contention) then the Great Designer would have something to say about life as he designed it best to function. True wisdom comes from God in other words. Does that help?

  • JohnnySmith0

    There’s no such thing as a “different” 90%, LOL. You say that the 90% are relevant, then irrelevant, then relevant… Do you see the pattern yet? The 90% are relevant if they believe in God, and the same 90% are irrelevant if they don’t believe in God. It’s called circular reasoning.

  • Web Outsourcing Gateway

    It’s all in the mind. It’s how you will look/take on things. And I think, everyone, who is a critical thinker, is capable of mind contrasting because whenever he/she is involve in decision making, he/she rationalizes everything by thinking of the possible risks and benefits to achieve success.

  • ZoltanJenei

    Thanks, it is a great article. It helps to stay on realistic ground. I use the positive visualizing technique, but also make a detailed weekly action plans that lead to my longer term goals, that I also have in writing. I check my achievements (what was successful, what not, what was missed etc.) on Sundays thus I can match realitiy and expectations.

  • Jennifer Rittner

    You cannot argue with the god delusion. Circular, irrational, absolute.

  • Jump

    “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 am at a complete loss to understand what that means. Is it the marijuana speaking?

  • @steveplunkett

    nothing wrong with positive visualization… it allows you to negatively contrast a timeline from the end to where you are now. =)

  • Selisma

    I do always make a ‘goals’ poster during New Years eve which a keep in a visible place in my room. I include highlighted and clear messages/quotes, numbers (if the goals include a concrete one), even pictures and for each goal I write down a path or concrete things i have to do to achieve it. So far, it has work. Just by doing this exercise I can stick my personal goals to my mind and they become a must to work for than just a thought or a wish. So, basically I will be working to achieve them during the year.

  • Sean Blanda

    This is an awesome idea!

  • Iulia Kirnitki

    It looks like researchers used an erroneous methodology. The first approach described in the article focuses on life time goals/desires, not short term tasks. The study failed to see the bigger picture where visualising gives the right mind set, guiding you in time to chose the right path that gets you faster to the picture that you project for yourself. Nothing indicates that the topic/s chosen for the essays had any connection with the real goals/desires of those participating in the experiment?

  • John

    In a way, this is old news but it’s nice to see a different validation. In the 1970-80s the Institute of Cultural Affairs developed an approach to strategic thinking that builds on the pattern you indicate. Basically, if an individual or group of people do a good job of articulating what they want to see (vision) by the end of the process they are left with a nagging “yeah, that’s nice but…” reaction. Rather than suppress it, explore it: what are the underlying obstacles to that vision? Exploring the obstacles really well, to the point of understanding how we are individually implicated (well past blame) creates such tension and clarity that the resulting ideas for action cut through a lot of crap, break down organizational silos, and make a difference. Strategies deal with the obstacles and enable the vision to emerge.

  • Rekha

    I am a big visualizer and believer of positive thinking, however that doesn’t mean I just dream all day and ignore the reality of big the obstacles standing in the way. Visualizing the big picture outcome that I desire helps me to tackle the obstacles that I face daily. Positive thinking alone does not guarantee success; one has to be strategic: dream big, think positive and do the work! It’s not instant magic!

  • erbPIX

    Back in the day we skeptics called it sunshine pumping. It’s good to finally see a reality check – Duh! Sometimes clouds mean rain, but that doesn’t mean it can’t still be a nice day. We are designed to learn from our mistakes, certainly, but also how to avoid making them in the first place. Common sense never goes out of style. erb

  • Jack Grabon

    Great perspective, Christian. I’m glad that this post went beyond typical “law of attraction” thinking that you just need to focus and think positively to achieve your hopes and dreams. Obstacles are important and need to be considered too as focusing on the positive exclusively isn’t realistic and may only get you part of the way you’re going. Of course, that doesn’t mean that we should only focus on the negatives or obstacles either. Thanks for the practical approach. I’m sure many can benefit from this post 🙂

  • Robert Mayers

    It is your BELIEF that they are wrong – you have no testable proof. And as for hysteria from the word, ‘god’, I think people’s reactions are quite justified considering that almost all wars are in the name of the conceptual construct of ‘god’. There is no benefit to arguing without using science and logic. Of course if you deny testable, scientific questioning then this is where our conversation can go no further because all you can reply with is, ‘belief’.

  • Robert Mayers

    I’m sorry, that does not help. You did not answer my question. You simply created a false logic feedback-loop. Additionally, testable facts should be used WITH logic – they work together.

  • Angelique

    You see this is where problems arise. I am not denying the existence of God, nor am I faulting any religion. But I do believe that the purpose of religion in this modern age has now become political rather than seeking truth. The gruesome stream of horrific bloodshed is merely a result of political interest by leaders who USE religion as a medium, but this view of religion is propagated in such a way to benefit the politics rather than allowing people to seek truth and/or understanding. (Truth may be the wrong word to use if one disbelieves in God, but for the sake of the argument, please allow me to use this term.)

    You can’t claim a religion to be evil before actually understanding the fundamental concepts of it. There is no religion on earth that encourages its followers to do evil. Put it this way. Both Christianity and Islam prohibit fornication. But how often is it now that you can find an unmarried person from both religions that is a virgin? Hindus are prohibited to eat beef, but I know many Hindus who eat beef anyway. And I have at least one Jewish friend who eats pork, a Buddhist who kills animals, a Muslim who goes to clubs and drinks alcohol, and a Christian who was once involved in prostitution. Of course I can’t say that these examples apply to all regions of the world. (At least I acknowledge that I am limited to what I have observed, rather than going all out saying that my perspective is the only one that is right). But my main point is, followers don’t always do what is preached by their religion. No one follows 100%.

    You should be careful when claiming a religion as a distortion of true religion. If you solely base a religion based on the actions of the followers (especially if these actions are done by a minor percentage of the population of followers), then there is no religion or sect or body of principle that is true and perfect. If you base Islam on the actions of the Taliban or Osama Bin Laden, for instance, then it is only fair that you think about Hitler. Does he represent what Catholism or Christianity preaches? Did he not claim that he was a good Christian? Was it fair that he killed all those Jewish people?

    I think the main problem here is that you feel that your views are so right, you have a holier-than-thou attitude that restricts you from understanding other peoples views and accepting that even if what you believe is true, you can’t force people to see your way. Just because you think you’re right, does not mean other people are wrong.

    Also, (I may be wrong) but you might come from a place where there is little to zero tolerance to groups that differ from the majority in opinion. I know there has been a lot of talk about Jews and Muslims unable to get along. But from where I come from, Jews, Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists. Agnostics and Atheists can live in the same house, share their separate views on religion and other matters and still love each other at the end of the day. The key? Understanding and acceptance. I personally believe in God, as a Higher Power and Creator. But my Atheist friends don’t find it draining or agitating to discuss the existence of God with me, because even though I can’t (and perhaps never will) relate to their understanding where God does not exist, I accept that these differences do exist and that everyone’s view is based on their understanding of life. And of course I have Atheist friends who find it foolish when I rely on God when I’m in trouble (and in fact I had one or two Atheist friends who said it out loud to me) but they respect my choice. They wait for me to thank God at the dinner table before digging in. So just because we all have differences (even two people from the same religion can have very different views), it’s important to understand each other and accept that not everything goes the way you believe it should.

  • Angelique

    I can understand where you’re coming from. Humans have the tendency do destroy, unfortunately enough. But I’d like to highlight, from your statement itself, the words “religion and what people have done with it”. It’s the same with any organization really, not just religions. People can misuse practically anything to suit their preferences. And it’s a good thing that you notice this. But, as a friendly suggestion, might you consider that it is the selfishness of the people rather than the aims of the organization, that’s caused so much problems?

    “Religion” itself is a created word to help people characterize beliefs. But anything can be a “religion”. If I define Religion purely as a system of belief, wouldn’t it be fair to say that believing that God does not exist and that the universe works by science and evolution a form of “religion”? It is after all a form of belief. Or believing that the universe is controlled by a highly specialized system that is not controlled by a God, should that not be considered a “religion”?

    You are free to disagree with me, of course. But I’m merely pointing out that terms are terms based on how one may understand or perceive it. To me, this is my understanding of religion; a system of belief. You may have your own understanding that may differ completely from my own. In any case, take it as a food for thought? 🙂

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