The Power of Positive Thinking?


These days we hear a lot about the power of positive thinking.  Magazines, adverts and self-help books encourage us to follow our dreams and ‘dream big’, implying that positive visualisation will energise us to fulfil our goals.

In 1991 Gabriele Oettingen published findings which challenged this assumption.   Her research with people enrolled on a weight loss programme explored how much they wanted to lose weight and how likely they felt they were to succeed. One half of the group were also asked to consider potential obstacles to achieving their goals.  Follow up 12 months later showed that focusing only on the goal hindered positive outcomes but focusing both on goals and obstacles increased the effectiveness of the programme.

The initial research findings have been replicated through experimental studies pain management, smoking cessation, career coaching and exam preparation and have drawn on innovative research techniques. In recent studies the research team have recorded systolic blood pressure readings to reveal how energised and motivated a person is before and after visualising a positive scenario.  It has been found that daydreaming results in reduced blood pressure, indicating that we can become less energised by our positive visualisations.

Oettingen suggests we can dream ourselves to a standstill as we can experience a short-term benefit from positive visualisation.  We relax and ‘fool ourselves’ into thinking we have achieved the goal (however briefly).  Her research over the following decades indicates that dreaming about the fulfilment of goals can have undesired effects. Rather than galvanising us for action, positive visualisation can reduce our motivation at a practical level.

The solution isn’t to do away with dreaming, according to Oettingen, but to bring a little bit of structure to the process.  ‘Mental contrasting’ describes a simple three-step process: visualising accomplishing a desired goal, anticipating obstacles which might interfere, and to forming a specific plan to deal with the obstacle.

Many approaches to behaviour change (eg. exercising more, eating better) rely on changing attitudes, values and beliefs.  The mental contrasting approach works differently by bringing together wishes and imagined obstacles.  The aim is to integrate goals and solutions, bring the future and present reality together and to draw on the subconscious mind.

Oettingen’s findings enhance understanding of human motivation and how to achieve change.  As a tool, mental contrasting can help in re-assessing and refining goals and in anticipating and overcoming specific obstacles.  As a self-help guide, Oettingen’s book offers practical exercises to apply this method in everyday life to short term and longer-term goals.  Therapeutically, the book offers a valuable framework for support.