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Don’t Think Too Positive

Positive thinking has been regarded as a motivator for decades. While general optimism may be a good life strategy, research has shown that when positive fantasies are connected with specific goals, the outcomes are often not good.  

My colleagues and I performed such studies with participants in a number of demographic groups, in different countries, and with a range of personal wishes, including health goals, academic and professional goals, and relationship goals. 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.

Further research found that cases of depression correlated with positive fantasies and poor outcomes. So, while fantasizing about successfully attaining our goals may provide great feedback in the short term, it's the actual real-world results that matter. Read about the research by psychology professor Gabriele Oettingen at Aeon. -via Digg

(Image credit: Flickr user Jason Dean)


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