October 28th, 2014

Oettingen: Positive thinking not always effective


I’ve always had a negative reaction to positive psychology despite a sometimes unjustifiable optimism. The contrarian in me seeks the alternative path when the mainstream suggests we all get in line like sheep, think alike and go down the same road. As a psychologist, I saw positivism as my field’s attempt to reinvent a history of its dark obsession with abnormality forged by European pioneers.

Related to my life immersed in bullying and injured bullied targets, I see newcomers and nitwits give targets bad advice. Some invoke positive thinking. Feel good affirmations cannot pierce the shroud under which bullied, anxious, and depressed targets find themselves. Can they? Of course, being told to “get real,” and “just grow a thicker skin” are equally inane and ineffective admonitions. Where’s the middle ground?

I found the realistic alternative to positivism in the work of German psychologist and researcher Gabriele Oettingen who teaches at New York University. Here are citations from an essay she recently wrote for the New York Times and the lengthier statements from her university webpage. Her approach seems best suited to targets seeking ways to overcome their adversity foisted upon them involuntarily.

Mental Contrasting

“Mental contrasting” has produced powerful results in laboratory experiments. When participants have performed mental contrasting with reasonable, potentially attainable wishes, they have come away more energized and achieved better results compared with participants who either positively fantasized or dwelt on the obstacles.

When participants have performed mental contrasting with wishes that are not reasonable or attainable, they have disengaged more from these wishes. Mental contrasting spurs us on when it makes sense to pursue a wish, and lets us abandon wishes more readily when it doesn’t, so that we can go after other, more reasonable ambitions.

WBI: This approach seems to give permission to the person to let go of unattainable goals — e.g., convincing your employer to fire the bully — freeing the person to pursue wholeheartedly realistic goals — e.g., finding the next job, taking time off from work to heal or spending time with family and loved ones to repair strained relationships that matter more than work.

From Oettingen’s NYU webpage in her words:

Engagement to goals

Mentally contrasting a desired future with present reality leads to the emergence of binding goals with consecutive goal striving and goal attainment, as long as chances of success are perceived to be high. To the contrary, mentally elaborating either the desired future only (indulging) or the present reality only (dwelling) leads to moderate goal commitment, even if chances of success look promising. These effects were observed in a variety of life domains (e.g., interpersonal relations, academic achievement, professional achievement, health, life management) and with different paradigms (e.g., salience, reinterpretation). Recently, we have discovered the underlying cognitive and motivational processes of mental contrasting and also applied this self-regulatory technique in intervention studies. Finally, we analyzed mental contrasting with implementation intentions (MCII) as an effective strategy to change bad habits in the achievement, interpersonal, and health domains.

Disengagement from goals

Mentally contrasting a desired future with present reality leads to disengagement from goals, if chances of success are perceived to be low. Mentally elaborating either the desired future only (indulging) or the present reality only (dwelling) to the contrary, maintains goal commitment even when chances of success are perceived as being low. Again, we have demonstrated these effects in various life domains (e.g., interpersonal relations, health) and with different paradigms. Currently, we are using mental contrasting procedures to help people disengage from goals that are not feasible (e.g., from a damaged relationship, from an unattainable professional identity). People simply have to mentally contrast their desired future with present reality. If chances of success are perceived as being low, the disengagement process can begin so that people can move on to more feasible goals.

Committing to approach goals versus avoidance goals

Mental contrasting does not only turn positive fantasies about a desired future into binding approach goals but also turns negative fantasies about an undesired future into binding avoidance goals. More specifically, people must contrast negative fantasies about an undesired, feared future with positive aspects of the current, safe reality, and expectations of successfully avoiding the undesired future have to be high. Using mental contrasting to turn fearful fantasies into constructive avoidance goals should be of particular importance when people have a hard time generating positive fantasies about the future (e.g., in the health domain, or in situations involving prejudice against members of an out-group).

WBI: Negative fantasies prevent action and are a key component in Jerry Harvey’s “Abilene Paradox.”

Indulging and the uncontrollable

Can indulging in a positive future have beneficial effects on motivation and well-being? We find that when facing controllable and escapable tasks, people benefit from mentally contrasting fantasy with reality. However, when facing tasks that cannot be mastered or relinquished (e.g., being terminally ill), indulging in positive fantasies should be beneficial, because it allows one to “stay in the field.”

WBI: Because there is a life beyond bullying for current targets, though hard to imagine or realize, positive fantasies are not useful using Oettingen’s reasoning. Being bullied is not the same as being terminally ill. Circumstances can be mastered and bullying relinquished.

Culture and self-regulatory thought

In the past, I conducted research on how cultural and political factors shape the development of efficacy beliefs, control beliefs, and attributional styles. I now ask the question of how cultural factors influence the development of the three modes of self-regulatory thought (i.e., mental contrasting, indulging, dwelling). For example, we are investigating the prevalence of the three modes of self-regulatory thought in cultures that differ in their degree of norm-orientation.

Coping with stress and interpersonal relations

We also analyze the psychological processes that make people who mentally contrast sensitive to chances of success and make people who indulge and dwell insensitive to chances of success. For example, we ask whether mental contrasting instead of indulging/dwelling promotes differential processing of relevant performance feedback, differential evaluations of critical experiences, and differential ways of coping with failure as well as acute and chronic stress. Another line of research focuses on the interpersonal consequences of mental contrasting versus indulging and dwelling. In comparison to mental contrasting, indulging and dwelling should make people disregard the needs and behaviors of their interaction partners (e.g., romantic partner, child, employee). This insensitivity then might affect the interaction partner’s direct responses as well as his or her long-term thoughts, feelings, and actions (e.g., aspirations, attitudes, decisions).

WBI: Oettingen’s “indulging/dwelling” mode is the equivalent to what we describe as “ruminating,” a time-consuming cycling through the same facts with an inability to “move on.” Targets are susceptible to “getting stuck.” The inward turn away from loved ones that “indulging/dwelling” causes is identical to the obsessiveness we observe in bullied targets.

Two studies that you may wish to read:

Heather Barry Kappesa & Gabriele Oettingen. Positive fantasies about idealized futures sap energy. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Volume 47, Issue 4, July 2011, Pages 719–729
DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2011.02.003

Gabriele Oettingen & Thomas A. Wadden. Expectation, fantasy, and weight loss: Is the impact of positive thinking always positive? Cognitive Therapy and Research, April 1991, Volume 15, Issue 2, pp 167-175.

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This entry was posted on Tuesday, October 28th, 2014 at 12:31 pm and is filed under Tutorials. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.



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