When positive thinking backfires…

“Dream big!”  

“Dare to Dream…” 

“Stay positive!”

“Believe in yourself…”

Everywhere we look, we are surrounded by slogans about the importance of being optimistic, staying positive, and assuming the best. 

And why not? 

As anyone who has seen “The Secret” knows, positive thinking leads to positive outcomes!


Well, not necessarily.  Optimism and positive thinking do have a number of benefits, but they have downsides, as well. 

Why too much positive thinking can backfire

RethinkingPositiveThinkingResearch by Gabriele Oettingen, author of the book Rethinking Positive Thinking has shown that too much time spent fantasizing about the future can actually backfire…reducing motivation, and increasing the likelihood for future depression.

Why does this happen? 

Well, while imagining a positive future outcome feels great, it can also trick your brain into thinking that you have already achieved your goal…which lowers your blood pressure, makes you feel more relaxed, and reduces your motivation to work hard and take action.

How this impacts students’ performance

Children and teens are naturally more optimistic than adults, and while this has a lot of benefits, it can also backfire when it comes to student’s performance in school.

When teens imagine that an upcoming test is going to be really easy for them, they typically don’t put as much effort into studying for it…and are frequently disappointed in the results.

One of the most common reasons why students procrastinate on assignments is that they assume the work will take much less time than it actually does.

And often when I ask students to guess how many good grades they will have to earn to make up for one missed assignment, they vastly underestimate the effort it will take to bring their grade back up, and are shocked when we calculate the number of high grades they will actually need to earn in order to reach their goal.

So, should we assume the worst instead?

If too much fantasizing about the future is bad, does that mean we should start thinking more pessimistically, instead?

Sometimes, students who have tried positive thinking and seen it fail conclude that it’s safer to assume the worst, and imagine that things will go badly, instead.  

But that’s not a great solution, either.

A lot of the students I work with who have test anxiety or perfectionism have gone too far to the other extreme, and are constantly imagining the worst case scenario.  This leads them to second-guess themselves, and spend a lot of time time worrying instead of taking action…which prevents them from performing at their best, as well. 

The ideal solution

Neither unbridled optimism nor extreme pessimism are a good solution.  Instead, the ideal approach is to combine dreams and wishes about the future with a dose of reality, by considering both your goals and potential obstacles that could prevent you from achieving them…and then creating a plan for how to handle those roadblocks.

Gabriele Oettingen calls this process WOOP — Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan. 

Here’s how it works…

  • Wish
    Think about something you want to achieve.  For example, for a student starting a new school year, their wish might be to get an A in their English class this semester.
  • Outcome
    Envision what it would be like to achieve this outcome. Let your imagination run wild, and consider what you would experience, how it would make you feel, and why this matters to you. This is your time to dream big!  

    This stage of the process will depend on what tends to motivate you most. Some students might imagine how proud they will feel when they bring home that A on their report card, other students might be excited about becoming a better writer, and others might look forward to bringing up their GPA and getting into a better college.

  • Obstacle
    If the outcome is your dreaming phase, this is where you come back down to earth. What are the obstacles that could get in the way of achieving your desire? When you imagine the steps you’ll need to take in order to get there, what is likely to stop you?

    One example of an potential obstacle for achieving an A in English class is having a teacher with very high standards, who takes off a lot of points for even small mistakes.

  • Plan
    You’ve already identified the biggest obstacle in your way. Now, consider HOW you could overcome it.

    For example, If you have a teacher with very high standards, one example of the plan might be to schedule a meeting with the teacher at least two days before each paper is due, to go over your initial drafts and get their feedback, so you have time to edit it and incorporate their comments before submitting the final draft.

Why it works

This approach is also called “mental contrasting”, because it encourages you to contrast your vision for the future with your current reality, observe the gap between them, and notice what you can do to close the gap.

I love this approach because — by combining positive visualization with implementation intentions (also called “if, then” planning — it provides many of the same benefits of positive thinking, without any of the side effects.

The WOOP process is extremely powerful and has been shown to improve results in experiments with many different populations of people, from students preparing for standardized tests and teens with ADHD, to adults on a diet or recovering from back pain.  For more information about these studies, check out Dr. Ottingen’s website.

It is one of my favorite tools to use with my coaching students, and is a part of every virtually every one of my coaching sessions, in some way, shape or form!

Putting it into action…

Mental contrasting with WOOP is a great tool to use with your kids anytime they have a goal they would like to accomplish!

To make it easy for you to put this idea into action and experience the power of the WOOP process firsthand, I’ve created a free PDF printable below that you can use to print out a WOOP goal-setting template, and paste it onto a 3″x5″ index card.  


What do you think?

Have you ever tried mental contrasting before? If so, how did it work for you?  Did you notice any differences with WOOP, as compared to using positive thinking alone? Post a comment on the blog below and let me know!

If you get a chance to try this out with your teen, I would love to hear how it goes, so please post your observations below, or send me an email with your feedback!

About the Author:

Dr. Maggie Wray is an Atlanta-based academic coach who helps high school & college students achieve their academic potential by improving their organization, time management, study skills, and mindset about school. To set up a time to speak with Maggie about how to help YOUR teen develop the skills he or she needs to thrive academically, visit http://creatingpositivefutures.com/contact or email support@creatingpositivefutures.com

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