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Time to Give Negative Thinking Its Due

A new book by Gabriele Oettingen explores the power of negative thinking.

In several blog entries, I have talked about the fantastic work that Gabriele Oettingen and her colleagues have done examining how to succeed at achieving difficult goals. Her work explores the way that our thoughts of the future help us to achieve desired goals.

You might think that the best way to achieve long-term goals that are important to you is to focus on how wonderful your life would be if you succeed. That kind of advice has been part of appeals to the power of positive thinking from Norman Vincent Peale to The Secret.

Oettingen describes her tests of this proposal in a new book called Rethinking Positive Thinking. Her work demonstrates that positive thoughts about the future can give people hope, which can help them cope with difficult situations in the present. But, positive thinking does not motivate people to work toward the future. The research actually suggests that focusing on a positive future lowers people’s motivational energy.

If you want to do a better job of achieving difficult goals, then it is important to contrast the future and the present In particular, it is important to know what the obstacles are that will get in the way of achieving the desired future.

Most people are good at talking themselves out of doing new things by focusing on the obstacles that will bloc the pursuit of a goal. As it turns out, though, those obstacles will get in the way even if you ignore them. The trick is to use your ability to find obstacles to plan for the problems that will arise.

Oettingen’s research demonstrates that finding the obstacles for the future is useful in two ways. First, if the number of obstacles that get in the way is too large, then it can actually help people to decide effectively when they should give up on a goal. Second, when the obstacles are potentially manageable, then contrasting the present with the future gives people an opportunity to plan for how to overcome those obstacles that do come up.

Rethinking Positive Thinking does more than just give people an overview of Oettingen’s fascinating research. It also gives them a simple structure for helping to get motivated for achieving new goals. In keeping with the tendency for self-help books to create memorable acronyms, she calls her process WOOP, which stands for Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan.

The idea is that this set of steps helps people envision a desired future and plan for it in ways that are likely to energize them to achieve that desired future. The book gives a number of specific exercises that people can use for their own goals.

Rethinking Positive Thinking is a highly readable book written by a scientist who has spent the bulk of her career exploring ways to harness the motivational system to achieve new goals. I am a big fan of self-help books that are written by scientists. It is hard to speak science like a native unless you are actively engaged in research. So any opportunity to learn about the field directly from the people creating the research is one that you should not pass up.

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