Monday, July 23, 2012

Perils of Positive Thinking


Fantasies are not the same as positive expectations.
This morning, Kate Reilly, graduate student at New York University, joins Psych Your Mind again (her previous post) to discuss some perils of positive thinking. Read on!


When you walk through the self-help aisle of any bookstore, you are likely to see plenty of books based on the notion that positive thinking is the key to getting what you want. The message is clear: if you want to achieve something, just keep telling yourself  “I can!” and envision yourself accomplishing your goals. Success will surely come your way.

Not so, says years of psychological research. Certain kinds of positive thoughts, known in the research as fantasies, can actually be detrimental to performance. When we fantasize, we idealize our futures. We imagine all the wonderful things we can achieve and the ease with which we can achieve them. Fantasies are not based on past experiences, meaning that we can have fantasies about achieving things for which we have no training or practice. They are also not at all based on what we believe will happen. We are fantasizing when we talk with our friends about what it might be like to win the lottery or be an NBA superstar.

Fantasies are different than having positive expectations about the future. Expectations are based on past experience and future probability. For example, I might have a positive expectation that I will do well on my next statistics exam because I have done well on my homework assignments and because I have studied hard. Because they are based in reality, positive expectations are associated with better effort and performance. So it’s not that all positive thoughts about the future are detrimental, just certain kinds.

To understand why fantasies are a type of harmful positive thinking, let’s take a look at four negative consequences of them.

1. Reduced energy

Generating positive fantasies about desired outcomes can sap energy. For example, researchers asked undergraduates to imagine that they won an essay contest. In the positive fantasy condition, they asked participants to imagine that everything about winning the contest went really well; in the other condition, they told participants to imagine that winning the contest was not as great as initially anticipated. Those who fantasized about positive outcomes reported that they felt less energized than those who did not fantasize. In a similar study, fantasizers also showed decreases in systolic blood pressure (interpreted as decreases in energization) whereas the non-fantasizers did not.

2. Mental, but not actual, attainment

Indulging in thoughts about a bright future can lead to “mental attainment” of that future: thinking as though you have achieved it. This can leave people with little motivation to achieve their goals in reality. In one study, participants who generated positive fantasies about an outcome (e.g., being more focused at work) evaluated outcome-related words in ways similar to people who have already accomplished a goal. It was as though participants were thinking that they had achieved their goals without really doing so. Importantly, this means that they had less motivation and were not thinking about the steps needed to reach their goals.

3. Bad planning

This one’s pretty simple: if you only think about how positive your future might be and how easy it will be to get there, then you don’t plan for obstacles that might be in your way! For example, if I fantasize about getting my dream job, I might not consider how to deal with tough coursework, data that aren’t perfect, or rejection of my papers. If I have no plans for how to deal with these roadblocks, then I’m much less likely to get past them.    

(source)

4. Pursuit of unfeasible goals

One problem with positive fantasies is that they don’t help people distinguish between feasible and unfeasible goals. When people fantasize about a positive future, they show levels of goal commitment that are independent of their expectations for achieving those goals. So even if they think they are unlikely to reach a certain goal, fantasizers remain committed to the goal. Though you might see this commitment as beneficial, I would encourage you to imagine all the resources and time you might waste if you continually pursued goals that were just too far out of your reach. Much better to consider your talents and opportunities and put your resources toward goals that align with them! Unfortunately, research shows that this is something people who fantasize about a positive future are unlikely to do.

Hopefully these four consequences of fantasies have convinced you that positive thinking might not always be the answer to motivation and success. The next time you find yourself fantasizing about how great it would be to get a promotion at work or to date the hottie next door, snap out of it! Thinking realistically about how you can achieve those goals might be better than imagining you already have.

What are your experiences with positive thinking? Have you ever noticed that fantasizing about your future hurts your effort and performance? Let us know in the comments!

References:


Oettingen, G. (2012). Future thought and behavior change. In W. Stroebe & M. Hewstone (Eds.), European Review of Social Psychology, 23, 1-63.

Oettingen, G., & Mayer, D. (2002). The motivating function of thinking about the future: Expectations versus fantasies. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83, 1198-1212.

Kappes, H. B., & Oettingen, G. (2011). Positive fantasies about idealized futures sap energy. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47, 719-729 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2011.02.003

25 comments:

  1. Interesting ideas! I wonder if people are more likely to fantasize when they feel unfulfilled by their own personal lives. This would coincide with a theory I came across recently in a psych class: arousal theory. Individuals need a level of arousal that is neither too high nor too low. Perhaps people who fantasize excessively are not stimulated by their own lives and seek to increase that stimulation in the form of fantasies.

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    1. The power of positive thinking can change and improve your life. Maintaining positive thinking and attitude will drive you to success and happiness.

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  2. That seems like a reasonable hypothesis! Those fantasies might not lead to action, though, and so people could be in a downward spin trying to gain fulfillment that way. Thanks for reading!

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  3. in my opinion, both men and women fantasize about the same and goals set by fantasies can be achieved through many ways. Some ways to influence goals could be self pep talk, outside positive influence or writing down the goals on a piece of paper. Men however fantasize more towards personal relationships more than women because they have a higher level of androgen and testosterone, which influences it.

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    1. You're right that people can make their fantasies effective if they use the right strategies and don't just freely fantasize. One strategy is to imagine their fantasies and then think about the obstacles that stand in the way. It is a way of connecting the future with reality and that helps people with performance. Thanks for your comments!

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  4. This blog is grounded in reality and achievers are apt to be also. I suspect fantasies are harmless as long as they are realized as such. The "you can be anything you set your mind to" philosophy is fantasy. Good blog. WDM

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    1. Yes - you bring up a good point. There are times when we know we are just having fun by thinking about what the future could be like. That seems different than fantasizing to escape the work we need to do or as a mental shortcut around the obstacles we need to deal with. Thanks for reading!

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  5. "Snap out of it" = very good advice. Recognizing the tremendous power of positive thinking when combined with determined perseverance, it is nevertheless about time somebody demonstrated the courage to tackle this one-with authority. Beware snake oil salesmen-consultants. Well done. JRS

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  6. Do you think that the "power of positive thinking" mythos is intentionally pushed by a controlling upper class? What I'm getting at, is that if you don't think about things negatively, you're probably not going to be compelled to change them. When you look at say, income inequality, clearly a lot of wealthy people and organizations spend a lot of money and time convincing people that if you think about what they're doing in any kind of negative light, you're a traitor or anti-social. Maybe you're a "conspiracy theorist". I have super christian relatives who literally believe that any kind of negative thought they have is the direct work of the devil and an indication that they are going against god.

    Obviously people who think in this manner are easier to control. What I'm getting at is that negative thoughts are crucial to critical thinking skills, which is exactly what exploitive authority figures don't want. So it's not just self help gurus, it's an entire culture that feeds us this to a certain extent. Positive thinking and negative thinking are equally as useful and developing a balance between the two would be the ideal. You never hear anyone emphasizing the importance of so-called negative thought in our culture. Seems fishy.

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    1. My sense is that most people who advise others to think positively are well-meaning, but I do see your point. Novels like The Hunger Games certainly raise the idea that being positive and never questioning anything could be dangerous. Research does support your hunch that a balance of both positive (how well can things go?) and negative (what might go wrong?) thoughts seems to be the best for effort and performance. Thanks for your comments!

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  7. The American workplace is rife with this attitude. It's almost as if my manager acts as if I can invoke some Jedi mind trick to 'will' things to happen at work. If I had that kind of power, I a) wouldn't need him to tell me to use it and b) wouldn't need to work there anymore anyway. It is part of the mass infantilization of America. If things are 'fun' and 'positive' at work, we don't question and we are relegated to acting like preschoolers. Prssure to be 'positive' and to euphemize everything into puppy dogs and ice cream protects those who have an external locus of control and can't deal with the realities of a given situation. Moreover, it forces people who are not of this ilk to stop questioning or criticizing dumb ideas for fear of being condemned for having a poor attitude or being 'negative'. Even when one is a realist now, they are perceived as negative because of the positivity machine churning out happy zombies. Of course, this is all a facade. Even those completely on board are deluding themselves and coping with reality in negative and destructive ways; either involuntarily (anxiety) or voluntary (alcoholism or drug abuse). We wonder why it is that no one ever sees the tragedies before they happen, like Wall Street or violent acts. Most people have turned themselves off to see the world through rose-colored glasses and the others, the ones who refuse, are either fired for being critical or shunned for not perpetuating the myth that all is well when red flags wave all around them. People who voluntarily enter into this delusion need reverberating reinforcements and will exclude anyone who does not validate their version of reality.

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    1. Your comment made me think about organizations that are consistently ranked the best for customer service. They are often the ones that are the most effective at getting feedback from consumers – they want to know what went wrong in order to fix it. They do not mislead themselves into thinking everything is going great, and this helps them get to the top. Thanks for reading and for commenting!

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  8. Economic conditions keep me living in the deep South, where what I call "pathological optimism" seems to be a cultural necessity. If you don't have a perfect life, the story goes, you haven't prayed enough. So, in order to maintain the esteem of those neighbors who operate from a moral high ground, where money and possessions are plentiful, a whole lot of pretending goes on. Every once in a while I crave a good dose of NYC or Detroit angst to relieve my status as a hermit. Pathological optimism is a wall that prevents any real-time communication.

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    1. There are certainly stereotypes of how much people endorse the “think positive” mindset in different regions of the U.S and whether their positive thinking is genuine or not. Thanks for writing about your experience – chances are others share your sentiments.

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  9. When younger, I read books about positive thinking. This would motivate me to try it intensly. I would work very intensly to think positively. I could keep this up for about 3 days, then I would get depressed.

    Here is an example of what helped me more. If I got depressed, instead of telling myself that "it is always darkest before the dawn", I would tell myself "it is always darkest right before it gets pitch black". Then I would experience some relief and see some humor in things.

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    1. You bring up an interesting point – that positive thinking and not getting the outcomes you wanted can lead to the worst feelings of all. Glad you were able to find some humor in the situation!

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  10. The act of thinking totally positively brings a reaction from within from that which is opposing positive thought. By remaining totally positive (not allowing a single negative thought to dominate) while dealing with the inner negative reaction, we can rise to a new level of positivity and a new level of "luck". The mind is a useful tool but as a master it traps us in illusion. Who are you without that thought?

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    1. People can focus their thoughts on certain aspects of their goals and their future. The hope is that if they spend some time considering reality and the obstacles that stand in the way of accomplishing their goals, they will not be trapped in illusion! Thanks for reading.

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  11. Hah. This reminds me of conversations between me and my husband. He seems exuberantly positive--bordering on fantastical, and I am what I consider to be securely realistic, but I suspect I think much more negatively than I realize. My hope is that we balance each other out squarely in the middle.

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