Mental Contrasting Makes You More Successful According to 18 New Studies

Mental Contrasting Makes You More Successful According to 18 New Studies

18 new studies show that you can increase the chances you'll reach your goals if you practice 'mental contrasting'.

To Practice Mental Contrasting 

Vividly imagine the benefits you'd experience if you attain your goal. Then, with equal intensity, visualize the obstacles that could impede this goal. If you form those mental images in that order, you'll be more likely to succeed - provided you are confident in your ability to achieve your goal.

When people face obstacles, such as anxiety, a variety of counterproductive inclinations may trigger. For example, they may avoid necessary challenges that could amplify the anxiety. 

Yet, when people practice mental contrasting, they become less likely to associate obstacles with avoidance. Instead, they associate the obstacles with activities that overcome the impediments.

A study investigated this. Participants were asked to reflect on an interpersonal concern, such as a conflict with their partner. They were to specify a positive consequence they'd experience if the concern resolved - such as feelings of warmth and harmony. Then, they were asked to specify a word that represents an obstacle to this result - such as jealousy - then a word that represents a behavior they could put in place to override this obstacle - such as distraction. Finally, they imagined the positive consequence and the obstacle as vividly as possible.

One control group was given a variation on the same instructions. They imagined the obstacle before the benefits of attaining their goal. Yet another control group was told to imagine events that were unrelated to the concern.

After this exercise, participants were tasked with deciding whether a string of characters was a legitimate word or not. Before each string appeared, another word was presented subliminally (that is, too rapidly to register). The target word was the behavior - such as 'distraction', and the prime was either the obstacle- such as 'jealousy', or another word.

Those that engaged in mental contrasting recognized the behavior more rapidly if followed by the obstacle. In other words, the obstacle was more associated with the behavior. In contrast, if participants had imagined the obstacle before they imagined the rewards of success, the effect was not observed. 

When individuals enjoy positive fantasies only, they neglect vital information. In particular, they feel motivated to overlook complications and other insights they perceive as undesirable.

Yet, with mental contrasting, ideas that epitomize challenging realities or obstacles get translated by the brain  as ideas that epitomize inspiring future possibilities. Consequently, individuals become more aware of how the challenging realities are obstacles to future possibilities. Their motivation to override these obstacles thus increases.

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Adriaanse, M. A., Oettingen, G., Gollwitzer, P. M., & Hennes, E. P. (2010). When planning is not enough: Fighting unhealthy snacking habits by mental contrasting with implementation intentions. European Journal of Social Psychology, 40, 1277-1293.

Gollwitzer, A., Oettingen, G., Kirby, T., Duckworth, A., & Mayer, D. (2011). Mental contrasting facilitates academic performance in school children. Motivation and Emotion, 35, 403-412. doi:10.1007/s11031-011-9222-0.

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Oettingen, G., Marquardt, M. K., & Gollwitzer, P. M. (2012). Mental contrasting turns positive feedback on creative potential into successful performance. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48, 990-996. doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2012.03.008.

Oettingen, G., Mayer, D., & Brinkmann, B. (2010). Mental contrasting of future and reality: Managing the demands of everyday life in health care professionals. Journal of Personnel Psychology, 9, 138-144. doi:10.1027/1866-5888/a000018.

Oettingen, G., Mayer, D., Sevincer, A. T., Stephens, E. J., Pak, H., & Hagenah, M. (2009). Mental contrasting and goal commitment: The mediating role of energization. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35, 608-622. doi:10.1177/01461672 08330856.

Oettingen, G., Mayer, D., & Thorpe, J. S. (2010). Self-regulation of commitment to reduce cigarette consumption: Mental contrasting of future with reality. Psychology and Health, 25, 961-977. doi:10.1080/08870440903079448.

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Oettingen, G., Stephens, E. J., Mayer, D., & Brinkmann, B. (2010). Mental contrasting and the self regulation of helping relations. Social Cognition, 28, 490-508. doi: 10.1521/soco.2010.28.4.490.

Sevincer, A. T., Busatta, D., & Oettingen, G. (2014). Mental contrasting and transfer of energization. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 40, 139-152. doi: 10.1177/0146167213507088