Improving Academic Performance

Mental Contrasting: A Better Way to Think Positively

Posted by Mark Skoskiewicz on Mon, Apr 04, 2016 @ 09:30 AM


Many self-help gurus tout the clear need to think positively to reach your goals.

The general line of thought is that whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right. Why? Because if you think you can’t, you won’t put in the planning and effort to actually accomplish the goal. On some level, this is in fact true.

However, there is a growing body of evidence that "pure" positive thinking can actually reduce the chances you reach a goal you’ve set for yourself. In this article, we’ll explore how this could be.

There are two major issues with pure positive thinking. You might call one a “psychological” flaw and the other a “strategic” flaw.

The psychological flaw, according to Gabriele Oettingen, is that positive thinking can trick your mind into believing that you’ve already achieved your goal. In effect, this gives you a pleasant, content feeling that robs you of the tenacity and drive required to actually meet the goal. Her studies have, for example, generated hard evidence that you could lose more weight by fantasizing about all the situations in which you are likely to cheat on your diet than by thinking positively about how great you’ll feel when you’ve lost weight.

In my view, this example also reveals the second issue, the strategic flaw, inherent in pure positive thinking.

Just thinking positively is unlikely to help you identify the actual steps you must take and curve balls that might come your way These are things you need to know to develop an effective plan and strategy associated with reaching any given goal.

Now, although in the weight loss study referenced above, more weight was lost by simply focusing on situations where you might cheat on your diet, Gabriele Oettingen does not believe that “getting real,” ditching positive thinking, and focusing only on obstacles and plans to overcome them is the right approach either. That robs you of the motivation that comes from thinking about the goal and the attractive results of achieving it.

Instead, the “right” way to think positively is to use a technique called mental contrasting. In my version of the strategy, it has a small number of very simple steps:

  1. Thinking positively / day dream – think of a wish or goal you’d like to achieve. Let your mind wander so you can define it fully, and imagine how great it would be to achieve that goal or experience that wish coming true.
  2. Think about the obstacles / be realistic – switch gears, and imagine how difficult it would be to achieve the goal. Think of all the obstacles that would prevent you from reaching it
  3. Return to the day dream – switch gears again, and imagine the positive benefits of achieving the goal, to remind yourself of how much you’d like to achieve it
  4. Develop simple plans for overcoming the key obstacles – return to the obstacles, but this time, create simple plans in your mind for overcoming them. What would you have to do to overcome each obstacle?
  5. Decide whether you want to set the goal – once you’ve completed steps 1-4, you might decide that, actually, you just engaged in a pleasant day dream, but you don’t really want to set this particular goal. It may be impossible or not worth the effort. OR, you might decide that yes, you want to make this day dream a reality.

Once you have a goal, the good news is that research shows that it isn’t IQ or even hard work that plays the largest role in achieving it. It’s the extent to which you develop clear strategies and plans. Businesses have been using strategy consultants for decades to help them come up with plans to achieve long term goals. It’s a practice that more individuals should begin adopting as well.


In sum, your path to achieving your goals should include a healthy dose of positive thinking, but in the context of the mental contrasting framework. What’s great about this approach is that once you’ve identified, through mental contrasting, the key obstacles that stand in your way and decided that you really do want to pursue the goal, you are in a great position to start developing strategies and plans.