Optimism: The Power of Negative Thinking

(This is the second in a series of blogs on Using Positive Psychology in Coaching Social + Emotional Intelligence)

screaming womanThe Power of Negative Thinking?  What’s up?

Consider this scenario.  You’re coaching one of your favorite clients.  They have something really big they want to achieve and you are supporting them.  You’re pulling out all the stops.  You have them picture what their life will be like once they achieve their goals.  You ask them to visualize every detail.  Where are they sitting?  Who is with them?  What’s around them?  Are their toes in the warm sand?  Are their fingers wrapped around the leather steering wheel in that hot new car?  Can they just hear the applause and see the standing ovation after that big speech?  You ask them to imagine what it will feel like once they’ve accomplished this big goal – actually, even more than imagine what it will feel like, you ask them to try to really experience the feeling of it.   What are those feelings?  Will they feel proud?  Confident?  Elated?  Exhilarated?

Good emotional intelligence coaching, right?  You have them visualizing and actually feeling the emotional tug of accomplishing the big goal.   This positive imagery and the associated positive feelings will really help them feel motivated and inspired, right?

Well . . .   not so fast.  According to research conducted by Gabriele Oettingen at New York University, visualizing and even feeling what it will be like to achieve our big goals and dreams in life can actually backfire.


Well, the visualization and emotional pull can help at first, but over the long run, it can trick the mind into relaxing, as if all the hard work has already been done, and the emotional energy we stir up initially around achieving the goal can actually trickle away.  People can actually become complacent.

In one of Dr. Oettinger’s studies, students enrolled in a computer-programming knew they had to excel in mathematics in order to succeed in the program.  All the students had high hopes and a great determination to excel in math.

The students in the program were separated into three groups.   In the first group (the “indulging group”), the students were asked to name (and write down) four positive aspects associated with excelling in mathematics (e.g., feeling proud, getting a better, higher-paying job, getting more job offers to choose from, etc.).

In the second group, (the “mental contrasting group” – see below), the students were asked to name two positive aspects of excelling in math, and two obstacles to reaching their goal in alternating order (e.g., I’ll get a better,  higher-paying job, but I might get lazy and not do the work.  But I’ll get lots more job offers, but then again, I might get distracted).

The third group (the “dwelling group”) was asked to think through and write down four negative aspects of not excelling in math.  (e.g., I’m not smart enough, I don’t have the time to study, etc.)  Ugh.

The teachers in the program tracked the students’ performance for two weeks following this exercise and “graded” the students on how much effort each student had invested over the ensuing two weeks in excelling at mathematics.

Only in the second group, the “mental contrasting” group, where the students considered both the positive AND the negative aspects of achieving their goals, did the students earn the grades needed to achieve the goal of excelling in math.  Not only did they get the grades, they exerted the effort needed, and they also felt far more energized toward the goal compared with the students in the other two groups.

The students in the first group, the “indulging group” who were asked to imagine only the good aspects of success felt only moderately energized, demonstrated only moderate effort, and earned only moderate grades, despite their high expectations for success.  Same for the students in the third group, the “dwelling group” who were asked to think only of the negative.  They too felt only moderately energized, showed only moderate effort and earned only moderate grades.  Students in the first group actually felt de-energized after visualizing their success would come so easily.   Many became complacent.   And those poor students in the third group never felt energized from the start.

Many other studies confirm these findings, including studies on learning a second language, finding work/life balance, smoking cessation, and various other goals related to self-improvement.

Those who simply fantasize about their goals actually feel less energetic about them and end up achieving fewer goals.   One study of mid-level managers at four hospitals in Germany was particularly interesting.  One group of managers was trained in the mental contrasting technique (explained below) and one group was not.  Two weeks after the training, those who had been through the training achieved far more of their short-term goals than their colleagues who did not attend the training.  They also found it easier to make decisions about how to use their time – another benefit of mental contrasting:  by thinking realistically about the obstacles to success, we pick goals we are actually likely to achieve and avoid wasting time on projects that will not get us to our goals.

So what is this Self-Regulation Strategy of Mental Contrasting?

Mental contrasting requires two steps involving both “positive” and “negative” thinking and emotion.  We want to ask our clients (or ourselves) to:

1)     Imagine the attainment of the desired future or goal (“positive thinking”) in vivid detail, and then

2)     Reflect on current reality and the obstacles which may stand in the way (the aforementioned “power of negative thinking”)

This process helps people be realistic in determining whether they can achieve a goal or a desired future state, and whether they can make the commitment to do so.

When the feasibility or expectation of success is high, people commit strongly to attaining the goal; when feasibility is low, they are far less likely to form a commitment to a goal (their goal commitment is weak or simply non-existent).

Mental contrasting is therefore a useful tool in helping clients with realistic optimism, selecting goals that are attainable.   In the process, they reserve their energy and personal resources (time and money) for the goals they can achieve.

An additional benefit of mental contrasting is that it requires individuals to think of the obstacles (or the negative aspects) that could get in the way of goal attainment so they can plan in advance how they can remove those obstacles.

In sum, it helps to have an end goal in mind, and a clear vision or picture of what that goal will be.  Vision, purpose and direction are vital to our success.   They get us to our goals.  But we also need to engage in “mental contrasting” – realistically thinking of the negative and the obstacles that could get in the way so we can plan for them.  We need to think about where we want to be, and realistically where we are now.  Interestingly, this process ends up actually energizing us more toward goal attainment than simply fantasizing and solely engaging in positive thinking.

Optimism is more than hope and positive thinking.  I don’t wish to diminish hope.  Hope is important.  Without hope we have nothing.  But optimism is more than hope.  Optimism is about being realistic about the work involved, and about taking action, and about overcoming obstacles.  Optimism involves considering the negative as well as the positive.

So, give this mental contrasting technique a try for yourself.  Think about something big you would like to achieve and write down at least three benefits of success.  Then reflect on and write down at least three things that could get in the way.  Going through this process helps us direct our motivation and energy where it’s needed most, and also helps us determine whether a particular goal is truly feasible or simply not in the cards.

What are your thoughts?  Have you tried reaching a goal simply by visualizing success while not considering potential roadblocks?  Did it work for you?  Were you successful?  Have you ever tried mental contrasting?  How did that work?

Our new course, Using Positive Psychology in Coaching Social + Emotional Intelligence starts this Thursday, March 7.  Positive Psychology is first and foremost a science.  While it’s “nice” to believe in the power of positive thinking, the science indicates more is needed.  Mental contrasting is just one of over a dozen evidence-based Positive Psychology techniques we will be reviewing to support our practice of Coaching Social + Emotional Intelligence. Come join us this Thursday to learn more!  Register here

3 Responses to “Optimism: The Power of Negative Thinking”

  • Mental contrasting booster sessions:

    Mental contrasting (MC)has worked well for me and my clients, and so I found myself thinking about how to leverage the contents of the MC conversation again as I read Kelly McGonigal’s terrific book, The Willpower Instinct.

    As we know, it is all too easy to put off the task that leads to long-term well-being or success, e.g., by choosing the pint of Ben & Jerry’s over the carrot sticks today and starting the diet “tomorrow,” or reading email instead of writing 200 more words in chapter 2 of one’s dissertation in order to get a faculty position. And of course, those “undesirable” tasks are the work that we must do to overcome the obstacles to get to that delicious future we’ve envisioned.

    So I am finding that over time, it can be helpful to revive the MC conversation when procrastination or self-sabotaging choices happen. The strategy involves reframing the choices by recalling that gloriously described goal outcome. Instead of asking, “Will I eat the cookie or eat the carrot?” or “Will I do email or work on my dissertation,” the choices become these: “Will I eat the cookie and give up my dream of being slim and fit?” or “Will I do email and give up becoming a college professor?”

    Perhaps we could call these conversations “mental contrast booster sessions” since it arouses that same kind of goal-directed behavior seen in the classic MC paradigm.

  • Mental contrasting, or what I would rather call this process is being honest. I do not have any case studies per se, or any other formal control experimentation, all I can present is over 50 years of professional experience (as a senior executive) and a great deal of one-on-one support work as a retained executive search consultant with hundreds of individuals guiding them through a very difficult and demanding interview process at C-level position. I learned very early on that most of the candidates whom we selected to present to our clients; nearly all enter this process of their own volition, and they “know what they are doing, and don’t need any help from me in the process.” Practically, all of them (accept for the totally self conceded) quickly realized that the process of certain deep examination of their; personal, business, family, credit, and virtual every other aspect of their lives they would need some counseling. The very first rule we laid was total honesty, the second was stop projecting, and third rule is clear their minds, relax, and please listen. This was in complete contrary to the current positions, where they all held senior management position and a great deal of authority. After a few sessions, again almost all began to realize that what they were about to go through was something they have not experienced before. Those who did not understand how we were about to help them, or resisted the help, or were trying to claw back their “executive persona” were thanked, and cut loose. The enormous difference in their personalities, and understanding about the search process, made a big difference in their ability to help them control the interviewing process, and be more positive about themselves and the task at-hand. Our 30+ year record of accomplishment in the executive search business is one placement for every 1.5 candidates interviewed. I rest my case.

  • Gail,

    I love your idea of “mental contrast booster sessions.” Brilliant !!