There is such a thing as too much positive thinking, it turns out. The more people fantasize or picture themselves doing well or accomplishing a goal, the less likely they are to achieve it. And they could end up being more depressed as a result.
A psychology professor has published an article that shares the results of a number of studies she has conducted in the area of positive thinking. The correlations that are being drawn are very interesting.
Consistently, we found a correlation between positive fantasies and poor performance. The more that people ‘think positive’ and imagine themselves achieving their goals, the less they actually achieve.
Positive thinking impedes performance because it relaxes us and drains the energy we need to take action. After having participants in one study positively fantasise about the future for as little as a few minutes, we observed declines in systolic blood pressure, a standard measure of a person’s energy level. These declines were significant: whereas smoking a cigarette will typically raise a person’s blood pressure by five or 10 points, engaging in positive fantasies lowers it by about half as much.
Such relaxation occurs because positive fantasies fool our minds into thinking that we’ve already achieved our goals – what psychologists call ‘mental attainment’. We achieve our goals virtually and thus feel less need to take action in the real world. As a result, we don’t do what it takes to actually succeed in achieving our goals. In multiple experiments, we found that people who positively fantasise about the future don’t, in fact, work as hard as those with more negative, questioning or factual thoughts, and this leaves them to struggle with poorer performance.
The group developed a model called WOOP — Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, and Plan.
The author uses an individual who is not comfortable in job interview situations to illustrate how the model works.
In this case, the person formulates a wish, such as, “I want my interviewer to be impressed by my credentials, my charisma, my knowledge of the industry, and my passion for the work.” Then, the individual visualizes a positive outcome, such as connecting and joking with the interviewer. Then, you identify the obstacle to completing the objective. In this case, it’s the individual’s nervousness. The individual can think back to previous interviews and what caused them to go wrong and perhaps you identify that it’s a lack of self-confidence that has been the problem.
From there, a plan can be formulated. If the individual starts to feel a lack of confidence, then they can remind themselves that they are smart enough and know more about the subject than anyone else.
The results speak for themselves.
In one study, we found that WOOP helped low-income mothers attending a vocational programme manage their time better. In other studies, children did better at school, middle-aged women ate better and exercised more regularly, stroke patients lost weight and moved around more, couples communicated better about difficult subjects and forgave one another more easily – all because of WOOP.