Imaging Your Future: A Q&A With Dr. Gabriele Oettingen

If a certain adored singing cricket is to be believed, just the simple act of “wishing upon a star” would allow your dreams to come true. Gabriele Oettingen, a professor of psychology at New York University and the University of Hamburg, has taken a critical look at this beloved take on positive thinking, in which you find your dream, wish long and hard for it, and success will follow.


Oettingen has found the act of fantasizing and dreaming about the future to be much more nuanced than you might expect. Brain World recently had the opportunity to talk with Oettingen about her recent book, “Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation,” and her research in the field of positive thinking about the future.

Brain World: Your book is titled “Rethinking Positive Thinking.” Could you elaborate on that thought and where it came from?

Gabriele Oettingen: This question can be answered from many different angles. How I came to work in “positive thinking” — why I chose that title. The central message of my work is that positive thinking is important in changing our lives, but not quite in the way that people think. Many people propagate that positive thinking is a kind of remedy for any problem. And they think that they just need to wish for a better future, and that ultimately will do it. But when you look at the data, positive thinking can actually hurt.

BW: In what ways would you consider positive thinking to be hurtful?

GO: Positively imagining the desired future can have negative consequences on effort and success, and on people’s physical and mental health.

For example, we found that the more women enrolled in a weight-reduction program positively imagined their success in the program, the fewer pounds they lost: three months later, one year later, two years later. Or, the more positively university graduates thought about getting a good job and an easy transition into work life, the less money they earned and the fewer job offers they had gotten two years later — and the fewer job applications they had sent out.

Other studies show that although the more positively people fantasized about their future, the less depressed they were at the moment, they got more depressed in the long term. And this relation is partly related to low effort and little success.

BW: I see. So, it has more to do with how much positive fantasizing occurs rather than a general attitude. Could you elaborate on that?

GO: Experimental studies show that positive fantasies compared to negative fantasies, or factual thoughts, or questioning thoughts, or no thoughts — depending on the control groups in the different studies — cause people to feel accomplished and complacent. People already experience the desired future, but only in their mind. Indeed, positive future fantasies can “sap” the energy that is necessary to go on and walk the (often difficult) paths to wish fulfillment. By measuring systolic blood pressure, or feelings of energization when engaged in positive fantasies, we observed a decrease in energy levels. And we found that such reductions of energy levels predict that people accomplish less in their everyday life.

BW: … But, what would we do without positive fantasies?

GO: Right! Positive fantasies and daydreams are very important, because they give us the direction to act. But the problem is that those positive fantasies that point out the direction to act can actually reduce the energy we need in order to actively walk in the desired direction. That is, positive fantasies help to explore the future, weigh the options, and dismiss the boredom. They are good for all of that. But when it comes to fulfilling our wishes and implementing them in actuality, they can become a problem.

BW: So, how can we solve that problem? How can we find that perfect balance between fantasizing and implementing?

GO: The problem can be solved by a strategy that we call “mental contrasting.” You start with fantasizing about a positive future, but then you switch gears, and you ask yourself: “What is it in me that stands in the way of fulfilling my wish and experiencing the positive outcome of fulfilling that wish? What is it exactly that impedes me from actually tackling my wish? What stops me?” When you ask yourself those questions, you start to identify the main inner obstacle to realizing your wish and enjoying the outcome. You touch base with reality. You also start to understand whether that obstacle is surmountable or not.


BW: What happens if the “obstacle” to overcome turns out to be insurmountable?

GO: You can find that the obstacle is either too costly, or that it’s not worth it, to actually go all the way. But then, by facing it — you’ll better understand it, and you’ll be more ready to let go of your wish or readjust your priorities. You’ll realize this is an obstacle that is too costly for me, or it doesn’t fit in my life at the moment; it’s just not surmountable. In any event, it will help you move forward. You will either adjust the wish, or you will postpone it to a better point in time, or you’ll simply let go of fulfilling your wish. You’ll also make the space you need to appreciate or focus on other wishes that are more feasible.

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