There is no shortage of pithy quotes encouraging positive thinking:

“If you can dream it, you can do it.”

“Reach for the stars!”

“Look on the bright side.”

“See the glass as half full.”

While inspiring words might provide a moment of motivation, it turns out they can have an adverse effect on achieving those goals. According to the latest research, the positive attitudes meant to provide inspiration may be the ones that get in the way of accomplishing those dreams.

For 20 years, psychology professor Gabriele Oettingen of New York University and the University of Hamburg has been examining positive thinking and her conclusion is clear. All that positive thinking can trick the dreamer into believing she’s already done the work to get to the desired goal, squelching the motivation to actually go after it. “Positive thinking alone is not enough,” Oettingen says. Indeed, fantasizing about success without an anchor in reality can actually diminish the likelihood of a better outcome. “[Positive thinking] has to be done in the right way and in the right form.”

What does contribute to success, she says, is the conscious adoption of a nuanced kind of optimism, one that takes into account the real-life barriers to success. In her recent book Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation, Oettingen shares a simple cognitive tool that can help children and adults stay motivated to achieve a goal. She calls it “WOOP,” for wish, outcome, obstacle, and plan, a more digestible label than the social-science term “mental contrasting with implementation intention.”

Here’s an example of how it works.

Wish: An 11th grader, say, wants to get an A in Honors English. This is his wish.

Outcome: Next, he thinks about what would happen if he achieved this goal, his desired outcome. Perhaps his teacher would recommend him for AP English, boosting his college options. His parents might stop nagging him about getting his assignments done, improving his relationships at home.

Obstacle: The 11th grader now has to engage in mental contrasting, and think about the internal obstacles that get in the way of achieving the goal. Maybe he feels tired and skips English homework when basketball practice goes late, and he’s unmotivated to diagram sentences. Perhaps he procrastinates on longer papers because he’s anxious about starting, and ends up handing in a rushed and sloppy report.

Plan: The final leg of the technique is to create a plan that sets up the obstacle and proposed action in a simple statement: “if obstacle x, then I will perform behavior y.” The 11th grader might come up with something like this: “If I feel tired after basketball practice, then I will sit down and do at least half of the sentences for my English homework.” Or, “If I get anxious about my research paper, then I will start work on it for 30 minutes.” He might even find an opportunity to form a preventive “if-then” plan: “if basketball practice starts late, then I will use the time to work on my research paper.”

This cognitive technique is effective, Oettingen says, because it works on the nonconscious mind. Fantasizing about attaining a feasible wish along with the obstacle that stands in the way of attaining it has the effect of tying dreams to reality. “With such a mental linkage in place, an individual couldn’t think about her dream any longer without reference to the obstacle, and the obstacle would serve as a nonconscious spur to take action,” she writes. “The association in turn explains actual, observable changes in behavior.” Another advantage of the strategy is its simplicity: it depends on neither special cognitive skills nor abilities, and can be used at any age.

Oettingen and colleagues have tested the technique in schools, and the results are significant. In peer-reviewed studies carried out with elementary and middle school children in Germany and the United States, students who practiced mental contrasting were better able to learn and retain new foreign language words than students who only fantasized about success. Another study involving high school students found that those who set up a plan for overcoming their obstacles to studying for the PSAT practiced more diligently than a control group that merely dreamt about it. Later research showed that three hours of training in WOOP improved the GPA, attendance rates, and general behavior of fifth graders versus those of who were coached just to think positively. And middle school children considered “at risk” for ADHD showed greater self-regulation when exposed to minimal instruction in mental contrasting and implementation intention—the “wish-outcome-obstacle” and “plan” parts of WOOP.

Besides helping sustain motivation and self-regulation, this cognitive technique also helps children slow the world down, inviting them to look inward to discover what they want to do and where they want to go. “The children are often overwhelmed with messages,” Oettingen says; WOOP “allows them to settle down and think, ‘what do I really want?’” By summoning children to acknowledge what holds them back, “it gets rid of excuses,” she says, and empowers children to take action against their inner obstacles. To enable wider use of the technique, Oettingen has set up a free WOOP app to help kids get to college and stay there.

Oettingen’s research complements the teaching approach of acclaimed chess instructor Elizabeth Spiegel, who took kids from an underprivileged junior high school in Brooklyn to a national chess championship. Spiegel insists that her students think and rethink the possible outcomes of a chess move, and to find and correct the mistakes in their thinking.

Oettingen is careful to point out that hope is a vital and necessary part of achievement, but that relentless pie-in-the-sky optimism detached from reality just hurts children. It desiccates motivation and implies that having a less sunny view of events is a sign of defective thinking and a deformed attitude. “It’s a load on people who doubt and question things, and who see things in a more differentiated way,” she says. “Positive dreams are not enough to actually achieve them.”

  • andy vasily

    Great article that clearly outlines specific strategies that can be used to boost performance.

  • Edward Krug

    While this approach might work, we need to be aware of the Hawthorn Effect when we examine WOOP’s effectiveness. Specifically, humans perform better when they know they are being studied, or by extrapolation, when they feel they are special. When the study is over, or the newness wears off the technique (or a toy), they sag back to the level set by their environmental influences.

    A second point, is that missing from this discussion is the need for support. Maintaining motivation is much easier when there is a sense of support. This applies most directly to the obstacle component of WOOP. This observation on support comes from an American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) decades-old study on what factors influenced women’s persistence in achieving advanced degrees in the sciences and engineering fields normally normally showing under representation of women. The key to persistence was the feeling of, and actual support.

    While the AAAS study applies to a multi year effort, it’s effect is expressed in the series of the daily little things that make the difference between considering giving up on the dream or pushing forward a bit more at that moment.

    • SMStauffer

      I think you’ll find that the peer reviewers are well aware of the Hawthorn Effect.

      You seem to be ignoring the natural reinforcement that is inherent in this technique. Students who use this technique succeed in school — that provides the motivation to continue to use it. They get better grades, which are both reinforcing and supportive; their interactions with their teachers and parents are much more positive, which is both reinforcing and supportive.

      The Hawthorn Effect was observed in factories, where there were few, if any, natural reinforcers in place.

      • Edward Krug

        Hi SM Stauffer,
        I haven’t read Gabriele’s book, so I know I have missed much of the method. This may be why this specific strategy seems simple.

        I been involved in education for several decades, tutored for over a decade, and trained tutors. Now I am involved in programs that motivate middle school youth to reach the point where they are ready to start thinking about the first step of this method.

        Gabriele’s WOOP method probably will work as one piece of the multidimensional complex and large 500+ puzzle that we call youth development and education.

        • SMStauffer

          I agree, it is one of many methods that will work. Regardless of the specific method, what is important is teaching students — teaching adults for that matter — the skills and techniques that will enable them to succeed. Time management, goal-setting, priority setting, meeting standards, etc.

          I teach at the graduate level, and so many of our students in their 20s do not have these skills. They turn in work late and incomplete; they do not read and follow instructions, so the work is incorrect; they complain that their grade does not reflect the effort they put into it. “But I worked really hard on it! And I turned it in on time. Why didn’t I get an A?”

          • Kristy

            SMStauffer and Edward Krug, thank you for your comments. I am a fourth-year undergraduate trying to finish my bachelor’s in Biochemistry, and I’m really struggling with these skills. I can relate to the example you gave of the student feeling that the effort he or she put into the assignment wasn’t reflected in the outcome. I see now that in my case, I’m giving 110% unorganized effort, or effort without direction and planning. I’ll try out WOOP next semester and see how it goes attacking classes with an organized effort.

          • Edward Krug

            Hello Kristy,
            My undergraduate degree was in physics, and my Ph.D. was in
            Anatomy-Physiology. The most powerful study tool I found goes back to Socrates, and currently is promoted in a more developed way by Applied Scholastics, International. It is the crucial importance of knowing the definition of terms, words and phrases.

            If asked for the meaning of any of the words you should really know in or in what you are studying, or in common English, and you have to think about for even a second before you start to correctly define it, you need to look it up, and master the meanings. You give it less than a second when your are reading it, so if you can not start to define it in that time, it might as well be in a foreign language.

            Wrongly or not understood words are extremely common. As a little proof, without looking it up, or asking anyone, quickly, write down your definition of the simple word ALAS. Then look it up in a dictionary. This word, from a third grade reader, is wrongly defined by over 66% of the 200 adults, (teachers, lawyers, and professionals) I have asked over the past several years.

            Going past a word you do not truly know, as mentioned above, is the a common cause of sleepiness while studying. Find the word that has broken your continuity of understanding, and your sleepiness vanishes. If going past a wrongly understood or not understood word occurs too often, it can lead you to think you are not smart enough for the subject, and it is a very frequent reason folks give up and dropout as a student.

            There are two other highly common reasons for trouble studying, but misunderstood words as above is the most common.
            As a heads up, this is something Hubbard observed as he was training people to be counselors in Scientology.

          • SMStauffer

            I have to ask — how do more than 66% of the 200 adults you’ve asked define “alas?”

          • Edward Krug

            I request that you wright down your definition before you read any further…………

            Now, you may have noticed the human response to not clearly hearing what was said when listening to someone, perhaps in a lecture or as a bystander. The general pattern is to fill in what you think they said. We don’t seem to like mystery, so we jump to the most obvious meaning, and move on.

            Now, that same pattern occurs when we hear or see a word that we don’t know. One easy solution is to find something similar. In this case, ‘at last’ is very close to alas, and that is the definition given by 2/3 of people. At last, or finally.

            If you look up the word in a dictionary, you will find a quite different definition.
            One person, a lawyer, told me they used the word alas in a court brief as a substitute word for “in conclusion.”

            How did you do?

          • SMStauffer

            I’ll even write it down — it means “sadly, pitifully, lamentably.”

            Alas, alack, woe is me.

          • Edward Krug

            Congratulations, you are in the minority that got it right.

          • SMStauffer

            I would hope so — seeing as I am also in the minority with a Ph.D.

          • SMStauffer

            It certainly can’t hurt. You might also ask about resources at your university for helping students to develop effective study skills. My field is entirely different from biochemistry, so I’m not sure that what I recommend to my students would help you. We do a lot of analytical and critical writing.

            One bit of advice that is universal is to make certain that you understand what the assignment is — what the professor expects you to do, and ask questions (via e-mail if not in person) until you do understand.

            I think with your attitude you will do well; the willingness to do what it takes to succeed is more important even than native ability.

  • SMStauffer

    Learning to set priorities is also important. If basketball practice is getting in the way of academic achievement, then maybe playing on the basketball team has to go.

    The most valuable course I took in college was “Effective Study Skills.” Among other tings, it taught me, as a freshman, to set priorities and to create a study schedule for the entire week. There were certainly obstacles to sticking to the schedule, but at least I knew what I was supposed to be doing, and when I did follow it, I had completed all of my classwork on time and did it well, and had time for other activities.

  • pollywumpus

    There’s a Vast difference between motivation and inspiration. Food for thought.

  • Leroy

    The average person that considers this approach has a tremendous advantage over those that don’t. The approach doesn’t need to be 100% perfect. Yes, there are factors such as having a support network, etc, etc, but the person that truly considers and attempts this method is already a champ in my book.

  • Peter M Fellows

    Oettingen’s WOOP gives students (or anyone) an easy-to-remember way of thinking about their goals.

    What would you like to accomplish? What will that be like?

    Visualizing the best possible future increases positive affect, makes you feel good.

    What problems might you meet? How will you deal with them?

    Thinking about the problems and coming up with a plan to deal with them makes you feel more in control and that reduces your stress.

    I find it useful to have my clients visualize the successful achievement of their goals from a third person perspective (as if they were watching a video of themselves). Research by Noelia Vasquez (York University) and Roger Buehler (Wilfred Laurier University) suggests this is more effective than imagining it from a first person perspective.

    This third person approach seems to trigger you to think about the ‘How did I do that?’

    After visualizing the goal as an ‘established fact’, (Hey, it was on TV so it MUST be true!) I ask my client to try to ‘remember’ how they got there (not how they are currently planning to get there).

    Imagining that you have already accomplished your goal and then trying to ‘remember’ how you did it, may stimulate ideas you hadn’t thought of. Possibly this is because it helps remove some of the fear of failure. You are operating from the premise that your plans worked!

    I also ask them to try to remember every challenge they faced along the way and what they did about it.

    Where it might feel negative and counterproductive to PROJECT what problems you might face, again, you are working from the premise that you overcame your challenges, so you might discover more pitfalls you wouldn’t normally think of.

    Then you plan on how you will handle them.

    My clients are corporate executives but I suspect that this approach would also benefit students.


Linda Flanagan

Linda Flanagan is a freelance writer, researcher, and editor. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Wall St. Journal, Newsweek, Running Times, and Mind/Shift, and she blogs regularly for the Huffington Post. Linda writes about education, culture, athletics, youth sports, mental health, politics, college admissions, and other curiosities. She also reviews books and conducts interviews.

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