Can we think about roses when we are about to go bankrupt?
We need something more than positive thinking. It is far-fetched to think and believe that humans have an in-built superpower of thinking “good” all the time.
Of course, we have the power – the power of thinking, feeling, and rationalizing; a strength we owe to our highly evolved brains and a skill that is unique to us. But it is rarely possible for us to keep the optimism and positivity switches on 24/7.
Psychologist Gabriele Oettingen (2014) said that positive thinking is deceiving, and it may tune our minds to overlook problems that are solvable in reality. While we cannot deny the benefits of positive thinking on our mind, body, and stress levels, some psychologists believe that there can be a more realistic way to look at it.
This article is about one such alternative processes to positive thinking called Mental Contrasting. In the following sections, we will take a closer look at what contrasting means, how it can be more helpful than positive thinking, and how we can practice mental contrasting in different life situations.
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What is Mental Contrasting?
Mental Contrasting and Positive Thinking have some features in common, like self-awareness and acceptance, but the core idea of the two concepts differ substantially.
Mental Contrasting is a visualization tool that takes us to where we want to be by reflecting on the pros and cons of the pathway. For example, if a person who is fired from his job wants to start over in a new city, his mental contrasting scenarios would include:
- Imageries about his current feelings (I am sad/I am broke/ I feel hopeless).
- Imageries of what would happen once he gets a new job (I am back on my feet/ I am happy/I can take care of my family).
- Imageries about what he might have to go through to get there (Appear for interviews/ search for jobs which can be stressful and time-taking/face rejections).
Mental Contrasting, therefore, is a more realistic and solution-focused thinking process where we prepare the mind to see both the good and bad and choose our actions accordingly. Gabriele Oettingen, a German psychologist, introduced this concept in the early 2000s.
Since then, Mental Contrasting has been a significant area of research in mental health and social sciences. Oettingen (2014) described the entire process of Mental Contrasting in a few words. She said:
“ Think of a wish. For a few minutes, imagine the wish coming true, letting your mind wander and drift where it will. Then shift gears. Spend a few more minutes, imagining the obstacles that stand in the way of realizing your wish.”
Dr. Ainslea Cross, a renowned health psychologist at the Derby University, said that Mental Contrasting is a “supercharged” positive thinking process that we can successfully use for addressing substance abuse, eating disorders, and stress-induced conditions.
Studies have found that if we encourage clients to use mental contrasting instead of standard visualizations and imagery, the results can be quicker and more long-lived. Mental Contrasting is more effective as it equally considers positive and negative thoughts.
Recent studies have shown that people who practiced mental contrasting during therapy or in other settings had better eating habits than others, had fewer complaints of chronic pain, and could sustain relationships for longer (Stadler et al., 2009, 2010; Houssais et al., 2013; Christiansen et al., 2010).
Several theories question the applicability and usefulness of Mental Contrasting (more on that in the following sections). Still, we have relevant data and research findings to support that such visualizations can prove to be more effective for preparing clients to deal with stress single-handedly.
For example, studies of Oettingen suggested that this process of contrasting can:
- Help in improving academic performance.
- Improve health conditions and promote lifestyle modification.
- Motivate individuals to exercise more, spend more time on self-care, and avoid unhealthy eating habits.
- Increase self-dependency and gratitude.
- Help clients with substance abuse disorders to control their impulses and stick to the treatment plans.
Mental Contrasting vs. Positive Thinking
There is a vast debate clouding over the similarities and differences between positive thinking and why we should choose one over the other. In a popular article published in the New York Times, Oettingen mentioned that Positive Thinking could be “problematic” when we choose to overlook the obvious shortcomings.
She further said that it is natural for everyone to want the best for themselves and not be happy when something goes wrong. But we can never really fix things unless we take care of the disadvantages and failures. Engaging in a meaningful imagination, as Oettingen argued, where we see the good and the bad, can empower us to plan to overcome the hurdles and accomplish our goals.
There are some solid grounds on which we can compare the concepts of Positive Thinking and Mental Contrasting. Let us have a quick look at how much they share in common and how widely they differ from each other.
Mental Contrasting and Positive Thinking – Similarities
- Healthy visualization techniques used in positive psychology and other mental health sciences.
- Aims to provide a solution.
- Involves self-awareness and unconditional self-acceptance.
- Calls for a healthy utilization of our thinking capacity.
- Increases motivation.
- Drives action.
- Widens perception.
- Promotes happiness.
|Mental Contrasting and Positive Thinking – Differences|
|Mental Contrasting||Positive Thinking|
|1. Usually practiced when a problem arises.||1. Usually promoted as a lifestyle choice, which one practices at all times.|
|2. Imagery includes positive and negative aspects of the current situation. (I want to be fit/ I have to cut down on alcohol and junk food).||2. The process involves consciously reflecting ‘only’ on the positive thoughts and outcomes of any life incident. (I want to be fit/ I love myself the way I am/ I look beautiful).|
|3. It is mostly solution-focused and guides action.||3. It is self-focused for most of it.|
|4. It shows how we can implement strategies for problem-solving.||4. The process is limited to thoughts and may or may not guide actions.|
|5. It is a more realistic and practical approach.||5. Positive thinking is effective but sometimes may not go hand in hand with reality orientation.|
|6. We usually resort to mental contrasting when we face a difficult situation and seek a way out of it.||6. Positive thinking can be incorporated into our lifestyle, in the presence or absence of problems.|
The Process of Mental Contrasting
Some research suggests that our subconscious mind works within a short time-span. It does not understand long-term goals and achievements – all it wants is to stay healthy and happy at any given moment.
With positive thinking and imagination, we give the subconscious a temporary feeling of ‘everything is okay,’ which explains the immediate motivation surge that comes with the practice. However, the mind remains unaware of the ways of sustaining happiness. As a result, we fall into a vicious cycle of feeling good and bad.
With mental contrasting, as researchers have indicated, we can see through the current problems. For example, if an obese person is practicing mental contrasting, he will imagine his ideal body and, at the same time, will be aware of how hard the workout sessions are going to be.
The process and the product are both transparent in mental contrasting. And as a result, he will likely be successful in going through all the hectic procedures for losing weight without giving up halfway.
Mental Contrasting ties the conscious and the subconscious mind together. It prepares the mind for action through a process called the WOOP:
W – Wish
Like most positive interventions, Mental Contrasting starts with a component of desire or expectation ‘to be.’ It is always something that we want to achieve through the visualization – to be happy, to be successful, to be healthy, to be safe and secure. The stronger the desire, the higher are the efforts.
O – Outcome
The outcome is the ideal state that we wish to achieve at the end. For example, if we want to achieve professional success, the result would involve identifying what we would feel and how our lives would change once we have reached the goal.
O – Obstacles
The third part of the process is a reality check-in. Here we reflect on the possible hurdles and difficulties that we might have to face while getting to the desired state, for example, the number of rejections, failures, and criticisms that we have to go through before we reach the ultimate professional success. Mental Contrasting allows us to face the possibilities of negative encounters rather than shunning away from them.
P – Planning
The final stage of Mental Contrasting is where we do the decision-making and planning of actions. This stage can include creating S-M-A-R-T goals that could lead us to stage 2 and working on efficiently executing them. Researchers suggest that the fourth stage of Mental Contrasting is where the real shift of energy takes place, and we work on reflecting our thoughts into action.
Find out more about Mental Contrasting using the WOOP Method from the Positive Psychology Toolkit.
Mental Contrasting in Action
The process of Mental Contrasting is systematic and practical if followed in the right manner. Dr. Gabriele Oettingen suggested that the most vital component of a successful Mental Contrasting session is strong expectations of success.
If participants are aware and confident about the likelihood of succeeding from the process, the possibility of success increases manifold. Here is a brief overview of how Oettingen’s model of Mental Contrasting would look in real settings:
Take a moment to reflect on the things that you want to achieve at present. Write down your goals, for example, looking better, staying fit, earning more money, or anything that is on the cards at this point in your life. If there are multiple goals, prioritize and list them rank-wise, keeping the most important objective at the first rank, and the least essential goal at last.
Reflect on the goal that you ranked as one, i.e., the most crucial objective of your life at the moment. Now think about all the good things that you believe would come to you when you have achieved it.
For example, if getting a salary hike is your priority goal, you can list points like ‘I can afford a better life for kids,’ or ‘I can move to a bigger space’ etc. Focus on each detail, no matter how small it may seem, and write down your points.
Next, take a moment to imagine the hurdles that might come your way when you seek your goal. For example, think about people who may criticize you or actions and exercises that can be incredibly hard to accomplish.
This stage is about focusing on all possible hurdles that you most likely have to go through. Visualize the big and small difficulties, write them down, and imagine the ways you can address these issues and overcome them.
That is all it takes! Mental Contrasting is simply a step-by-step approach of imagining all the possible bright and grey sides of a goal and planning to solve them. Once we have everything opened in front of us, it becomes easy to create actionable goals and work on them.
4 Studies on Mental Contrasting
Psychologists across different fields have examined the effectiveness of Mental Contrasting on clients of various ages and backgrounds. While some studies have suggested its reliability, some findings are vague and still under review.
Here are some recent investigations on Mental Contrasting that shed meaningful light into its effectiveness as a psychological intervention.
1. Mental Contrasting and Self-Regulation
This study was conducted across a range of clients, including students and nurses, and the results were evaluated two weeks post-intervention. The experiment revealed that participants who had higher expectations from the contrasting process were more likely to seek help and act for achieving the goals they had imagined.
For example, nurses who were more confident and had set reasonable expectations from the exercise showed up to 50% improvement in their communication pattern with clients, which positively impacted their job performance. (Oettingen, G., Stephens, E. J., Mayer, D., & Brinkmann, B. (2010)).
2. Mental Contrasting and Eating Disorders
An interesting study on the effect on Mental Contrasting on implementing intentions showed that when participants mentally contrasted on healthy eating habits along with maintaining a daily food journal, they showed a 30% improvement in diet than participants who only filled in the food journal without visualizing. (Adriaanse, M. A., Oettingen, G., Gollwitzer, P. M., Hennes, E. P., de Ridder, D. T., & De Wit, J. B. 2010).
3. Mental Contrasting and Goal Commitment
This study aimed to prove that mental contrasting is a self-regulatory strategy that leads to goal commitment by balancing the present reality with the future desired state. The experiment was conducted in two phases, and the results indicated that when the expectation of success was higher among the participants, the energy to actualize life goals was more. (Oettingen, G., Mayer, D., Timur Sevincer, A., Stephens, E. J., Pak, H., & Hagenah, M. 2009).
4. Mental Contrasting and Performance
A creativity test involving mental contrasting revealed that when participants of contrasting received positive feedback, their performance improved, and they showed more initiative to act. On the contrary, participants who received moderately negative feedback showed less motivation and were not as committed as the others to perform a task well.
The study established the role of mental contrasting in increasing creativity and performance drive among participants and was validated with reliable findings later.
(Oettingen, Marquardt, Gollwitzer)
Limitations of Mental Contrasting
While we have to accept and acknowledge the obvious benefits of a practical visualization technique as Mental Contrasting, we cannot complete the discussion without identifying the several criticisms it has faced since its inception.
Many researchers and psychologists have questioned the process of Mental Contrasting on the grounds of:
- The remarkably low number of research and studies that are available on the topic.
- The questionable long-term effectiveness of Mental Contrasting.
- The ideal population who are likely to benefit the most from this intervention.
- The adverse effects (if any) that it may have on clients.
- The proven dose-frequency of the technique, i.e., how often we can use mental contrasting and why.
Mental contrasting is undoubtedly a bold approach to contemporary positive interventions with some undeniable advantages. Although there is a lot to be researched, we have multiple reasons to believe in its realism and applicability.
A Take-Home Message
If we think of imagery that is reality-bound and solution-focused to the core, then Mental Contrasting is the best answer that we have got. The way it shifts the energy from thoughts to actions and goal-planning is commendable and helpful for reaching desired life goals.
The component of expectation and success is also crucial for implementing the method, and no doubt Mental Contrasting can be a solid mantra for goal commitment and wholesome positive living – making the most of our cognition, perception, and action.
- Adriaanse, M. A., Oettingen, G., Gollwitzer, P. M., Hennes, E. P., de Ridder, D. T., & De Wit, J. B. 2010). When planning is not enough: Fighting unhealthy snacking habits by mental contrasting with implementation intentions (MCII). European Journal of Social Psychology
- Amin, (2013): “Mental contrasting: effectiveness, uses, and precautions.” Happier Human.
- Cross, A., & Sheffield, D. (2016). Mental contrasting as a behaviour change technique: a systematic review protocol paper of effects, mediators, and moderators on health. Systematic reviews, 5(1), 201.
- Hawkins(2011). “Mental contrasting: a way to boost our commitment to goals we care about.” Good Medicine.
- Oettingen, G., & Wadden, T. A. (1991): Expectations, fantasy, and weight loss: Is the impact of positive thinking always positive? Cognitive Therapy and Research, 15(2), 167-175.
- Oettingen, Gabriele & Mayer, Doris & Sevincer, A. Timur & Stephens, Elizabeth & Pak, Hyeon-ju & Hagenah, Meike. (2009): Mental Contrasting and Goal Commitment: The Mediating Role of Energization. Personality & social psychology bulletin. 35. 608-22.
- Oettingen, G., Stephens, E. J., Mayer, D., & Brinkmann, B. (2010). Mental contrasting and the self-regulation of helping relations. Social Cognition, 28(4), 490-508
- Oettingen, Marquardt, Gollwitzer (2012): Mental contrasting turns positive feedback on creative potential into successful performance. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 990-996
- Scheier, M. F., & Carver, C. S. (1993): On the Power of Positive Thinking: The Benefits of Being Optimistic. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 2(1), 26-30.
- Stadler, G., Oettingen, G., & Gollwitzer, P. (2011): Physical Activity in Women: Effects of a Self-Regulation Intervention. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 36(1).
- Stadler, G., Oettingen, G., & Gollwitzer, P. M. (2010): Intervention effects of information and self-regulation on eating fruits and vegetables over two years. Health Psychology, 29(3), 274-283.