SHANKAR VEDANTAM, HOST:
This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. There's so much in our popular culture about the power of positive thinking. We're often told to follow our hearts, to dream big.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: You can have, do or be anything you want.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Whatever belief you hold in your subconscious mind will become your reality, bottom line.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Value yourself, and believe in yourself.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Because believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart, even when it leads you off the well-worn path.
VEDANTAM: But now researcher Gabriele Oettingen says maybe we should all dream a little smaller.
GABRIELE OETTINGEN: Positive fantasies and daydreams, as pleasurable they are, they have a problem when it comes to fulfilling our wishes and attaining our goals.
VEDANTAM: Gabriele is a professor at New York University and author of the book, "Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside The New Science Of Motivation." She's from Germany, and she said growing up, no one told her to shoot for the stars.
OETTINGEN: I was, yeah, raised in Europe, and the idea of big dreams, big hopes was, if at all, more implicit than explicit.
VEDANTAM: When she came to the United States, though, Gabriele noticed a real cultural difference.
OETTINGEN: Well, when I came to America, it was wonderful because people always said, yes, do it. Yes, that's possible. Yeah, OK, this is a good idea. Why don't you do it? Whereas back in Europe, people were more cautious and said, you know, are you sure you want to do this? Are you sure this is possible? So I was really happy to come to America...
OETTINGEN: ...Because people were just sort of encouraging whatever idea you had.
VEDANTAM: So yes, positive thinking, indulging in fantasies about the future, it does feel good. But when Gabriele Oettingen began to research this topic, she found something interesting.
OETTINGEN: Well, these positive fantasies, they seduce us to feel already accomplished, and they take our energy away. So we found that, for example, the more positively women enrolled in a weight reduction program, the fewer pounds they lost three months later, one year later, two years later.
Or the more positively university graduates fantasized about an easy transition into work-life, the fewer dollars they earned two years later, the fewer job offers they had gotten and also the fewer job applications they had sent out. Or take students. The more positively they fantasized about getting a good grade in their exam, the less well they did.
Or the more positively they fantasized about getting together with a crushee, the less likely they were to actually get in a romantic relationship. Or take the health domain. Same thing, the more positively hip replacement surgery patients fantasized about an easy recovery, the less well could they move their joint, the fewer steps they could take and the less well they recovered from the surgery.
VEDANTAM: So when you look at each of these cases, I'm wondering if you could tell me what you mean by a positive fantasy. So let's take the student, for example, who is hoping to go out on a date with someone that he or she likes. You're sort of imagining, for example, going out on a date, things going really well, this other person really liking you as much as you like them.
OETTINGEN: Yeah, that's a good question, actually. It's not so easy to measure these fantasies. So what we did is we gave participants a short story, so for example, in the case of the people who had a crush on someone else, a short story describing how they meet this person. And they then needed to end that story, and that story could either end positively, or they could end not so positively.
So then participants fantasized and wrote down their fantasies about the ending of the story. And the more positively these people had been fantasizing about getting together with their crushee, the less likely it was that they actually got together with the person they were in love. So the idea, really, is the more idealized, the more positively people fantasize, the less well they do because they don't put in the effort needed to actually reach their goals and fulfill the wishes.
VEDANTAM: Now is it the case that people recovering from, example, hip replacement surgery, when they have positive fantasies of walking, at one level, you would have to say this is deeply, deeply understandable. You know, you feel like you can't do the things that you're used to doing, you want to get back on your feet, and you want to dream of the day when you would be able to walk or climb stairs or run without pain. Are you saying that that's a bad thing?
OETTINGEN: No, I'm not saying it's a bad thing. Actually, we have very nice data showing that these positive fantasies, they actually come out of a person's needs. And you are completely right. A person who has a surgery and who used to be able to walk feels a need to walk like before. And they are the positive fantasies come from.
And I don't say these are bad things at all because they are the beginning of action. But they are only the beginning. They give action the direction, but they don't give action the necessary energy. In fact, when we induce participants to positively fantasize, to ideally depict the positive future, then we find that the blood pressure goes down, and then we find that the feelings of energization go down, and we find that people feel already accomplished. So they relax. They relax because mentally, they're already there.
VEDANTAM: There's something terribly sad about this, which is that the person imagines the happy future, perhaps because they're not very happy at the present. But by so doing, they, in some ways, deprive themselves of the energy and motivation they need to make their futures actually better and thereby make their futures worse. It feels like a vicious cycle.
OETTINGEN: Well, it is not so sad if you consider that if you actually complement these positive fantasies with considerations of what stands in the way, what is it in you that stands in the way that you actually fulfill your wishes and attain your goals, that then you actually get the energy. And if these goals are attainable, then you really go for it.
VEDANTAM: When we come back, we'll talk about the next steps to make that daydream a reality.
OETTINGEN: You think about the next four weeks. Now in the next four weeks, what is your most important wish?
VEDANTAM: Stay with us.
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VEDANTAM: Gabriele Oettingen has found that positive thinking, while fun, may not really be the answer to achieving your goals. But she does see that noticing your dreams and thinking about what you really want can be the first step to making them a reality. You've done a lot of work looking not just at the potential downside of these positive fantasies but also how we can use these positive fantasies in a very productive way, and you call it mental contrasting. What is mental contrasting?
OETTINGEN: Mental contrasting is a strategy to fulfill your wishes and attain your goals. So you first identify a wish, a wish that is very dear to you. So for example, you think about the next four weeks. Now in the next four weeks, what is your most important wish? Can be a professional wish, can be an interpersonal wish, can be health wish. This wish should be a wish that is little challenging for you but that you actually can fulfill yourself. Now identify that wish, and keep it in front of your mind. What you do then is you think about, what would be the best thing, the best outcome if I fulfill myself that wish?
And once you identify that and put it in front of your mind, then you imagine that best thing. And you recognize now imagining that best thing is like positively fantasizing. These are the positive daydreams we were just talking about. But then instead of carrying on with these positive fantasies, you now switch gears, and you say to yourself, actually, what stops me from fulfilling my wish and experiencing that outcome? What is it in me that stands in the way? What is my inner obstacle? What is it in me? And then once you identify it, your inner obstacle - and you need a little bit of humor and a little bit of honesty to yourself.
Sometimes it's not so pleasant. You don't need to tell anybody. But you can identify that obstacle, and then you say to yourself, if that obstacle occurs, then I will show a behavior or think a thought to overcome that obstacle. So if obstacle, then I will behavior to overcome obstacle. And that's what in the science language is called mental contrasting with implementation intentions. And to forget this complicated name, it's called in the science literature also MCII. But we renamed it now, and it's called now WOOP for wish - first, we started with a wish - outcome - we then went on to identify that outcome and imagine that outcome - obstacle - remember the obstacle. Identify the obstacle. Imagine the obstacle. And then the plan, the if obstacle, then I will overcome plan. And that's called WOOP.
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VEDANTAM: I asked Gabriele how she would apply her strategy to someone who has a crush on another person but instead of doing something about it is just sitting around daydreaming about a blissful honeymoon. What would that person do if they wanted to use mental contrasting or WOOP?
OETTINGEN: So let's say you have a young person, a student who is interested in another person. And so the wish would be, now I want to go with him or with her on a date and want to explore a little bit deeper what that person is all about. So that would be the wish. The best outcome might be something like, you know, we would have a really good time, and we would feel kind of in harmony.
But then the person would change gears and say, what is it in me that stands in the way that I actually fulfill my wish, that I ask this person out for a date and experience the harmony? So what is it in me that stands in the way? And then the person might discover, I might feel too shy, or I'm a little bit anxious, reluctant to get a rejection. And then the person can elaborate on that shyness to be rejected or that fear of rejection, can really elaborate on it, kind of understand, oh, yeah, this fear, that's my obstacle. And after that, the person could think, what can I do to overcome this fear of rejection?
So what can the person do? The person can sort of understand, well, if the person rejected me, then I'm there where I'm right now because if I don't talk to that person, I don't - I will not meet the person anyway. So I can't really lose anything. And then he or she could do the if-then plan. If I feel that fear of rejection, then I will tell myself, just go to that person and approach him or her because I can't lose anything. And then the person will nonconsciously, outside of awareness, approach that person by sort of overcoming one's fears of rejection.
VEDANTAM: One of the things that I find so striking is that third step doesn't involve saying, what are the obstacles in my path? But you ask, what are the obstacles in me that prevent me from achieving this goal?
OETTINGEN: That's correct because the obstacles in me doesn't allow me to come up with all these excuses. So if I say, what are the obstacles in my path, I could say, well, this person is in a different building or whatever or studies a different topic, or I don't have the time, or I'm just busy right now or I'm - all these excuses, they fall away if you ask, what is it in you that stands in the way?
What is it really that stands in the way? So you need to be a little bit kind of generous with yourself and say, OK, what is it? What is it in me? And once you find that, then you will also find the solution by imagining that obstacle in you. Then you will also find the solution. And very often, there is a big aha moment afterwards. You say, oh, that's what I could do to actually overcome that obstacle and to fulfill my wish.
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VEDANTAM: Gabriele believes the reason WOOP works is that consciously imagining goals and obstacles and making deliberate plans to overcome those obstacles creates unconscious habits. After a while, you don't have to consciously think of all the steps in WOOP. Merely thinking about the first step triggers all the others.
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OETTINGEN: This conscious strategy leads to these nonconscious processes. So for example, in mental contrasting, the future and the reality, the future and the obstacles are strongly linked after the imagery so that you can't really think about the future anymore without that the reality that the obstacle kind of shoots in. And also the obstacle is linked to the instrumental means to overcome the obstacle. So as soon as you think about obstacle, then the behavior to overcome obstacle shoots in. And, which is really important, the meaning of the reality is now changed.
After mental contrasting, a party is not a fun event anymore when you actually strive to do well on an exam on Tuesday and the party on Saturday is not a fun event anymore. It's now the obstacle to being successful in that exam. And it's now (unintelligible) more negatively, and it's perceived as an obstacle. It's not a fun event anymore where you can think about what to dress and what to drink. It is now an obstacle.
And at the same time, also your energy goes up, the energy to overcome the obstacle. So you can measure that by blood pressure. You can measure that by feelings of energization. And you are well-equipped to react to feedback. If you get negative feedback, now you extract the information out of that negative feedback without getting hurt. So you don't take it personally, but you take the information encompassed in this negative feedback and you use it to make the correct plans. So in that way, WOOP helps you by these nonconscious processes to change your behavior. And the interesting thing is these nonconscious processes which run off, without that people are aware, they then actually mediate or predict the behavior changes.
VEDANTAM: Has mental contrasting changed anything that you do?
OETTINGEN: Well, I am using WOOP on a daily basis, and we have devised - next to the book, we have devised an app, which gives you the instructions of mental contrasting with implementation intentions of WOOP. So it leads you through the four steps - wish, outcome, obstacle, plan. And interestingly enough, I thought, I'm going to experiment on WOOP. But I'm using the app every day, actually. I'm using the app because it forces me to specify my wish, to specify my outcome, to imagine the outcome, to specify my inner obstacle, to imagine the inner obstacle and to form a very specific if obstacle, then I will behavior to overcome obstacle plan.
So I do it every morning. Other people do it in the evening or, you know, during lunch break or when they wait for the bus or in the subway. What you need, though, for doing WOOP, you need to have a quiet moment for yourself. You can be in subway when everybody's talking, but you need to be uninterrupted. You can't do your email. You can't talk to someone while you're doing WOOP. So you need to have a moment for yourself where you think, what is my wish? What is my wish for today? Or you might think, what is my wish for the next four weeks? Or what do I want in life? What is it really that I want? So you can WOOP very big wishes, or you can WOOP trivial wishes. But what is important, it needs to be a wish which is dear to your heart. And the nice thing with WOOP is that it also allows you to finally think about, what do I really want?
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VEDANTAM: Gabriele Oettingen is a professor of psychology at New York University. The HIDDEN BRAIN podcast is produced by Kara McGuirk-Alison, Maggie Penman and Max Nesterak. Find us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and leave us a review on iTunes. I'm Shankar Vedantam, and this is NPR.
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