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Features : Editorial Last Updated: Nov 7, 2012 - 10:09:48 AM

What works better - positive or negative thinking?
By Steve Ferber
Nov 7, 2012 - 10:08:55 AM

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There’s a new strategy in town for achieving your goals – it’s called “mental contrasting” and it demonstrates that, if we wish to reach our goals, we have to do more than simply visualize them.  The term “mental contrasting” was coined by Gabriele Oettingen and colleagues (at New York University’s psychology lab) and their studies support the notion that simply visualizing a positive outcome doesn’t particularly work.  
In reviewing Oettingen’s studies, psychologist Christian Jarrett, in an article posted on, explained: “. . . 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.”
Oettingen and Andreas Kappes, in a paper titled “Mental Contrasting of Future and Reality,” explained: “In mental contrasting, people first imagine the attainment of a desired future (e.g., becoming a lawyer, writing an article) and thereafter reflect on the present reality that stands in the way of attaining the desired future (e.g., excessive partying, having little time). Thus, contrasting fantasies about the future with reflections on reality is a problem-solving strategy . . . .”
So what works better?  Indulging in thoughts about reaching your goal, or mental contrasting? Oettinger and colleagues report on their findings:
“Participants in one condition were taught to use mental contrasting regarding their everyday concerns, while participants in the other condition were taught to indulge. Two weeks later, participants in the mental-contrasting condition reported to have fared better in managing their time and decision making during everyday life than those in the indulging condition. By helping people to set expectancy-dependent goals, teaching the metacognitive strategy of mental contrasting can be a cost- and time-effective tool to help people manage the demands of their everyday life.”
In one fascinating study, Oettingen and colleagues evaluated the impact of positive vs. negative feedback on goal achievement.  Here’s how they set it up, as described by Jarrett:
“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).”
  Bottom line: the best time to employ mental contrasting (that is, focusing on obstacles to overcome) is when you’re in positive mood, when excitement is high and adrenaline is flowing, not when you’re down in the dumps.  So wait until the energy flows, and then consider the steps you need to take to get there, wherever there might be.

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