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


BW: Very interesting. Can you explain scientifically what goes on in the brain in the process of purely fantasizing about the future versus mental contrasting?

GO: When we compare positively thinking about the future and mental contrasting, which is fantasizing about a positive future but also identifying and imagining the obstacles in the way, we find important differences in brain activity.

In brain research, often the experimental [state] is compared to a state of resting, where people are just relaxed and quiet and are told to not think about anything. Just positively thinking about the future does not differ from these resting states, so nothing special seems to go on in the brain. However, when we do mental contrasting, very different processes seem to happen. The brain areas that are active implicate “intention formation,” “memory,” “visualization,” and “holistic thinking.” The brain areas that get activated are the same areas that are typically active when people have set goals and implement these goals. This shows that mental contrasting is a strategy that involves vivid imagery and the formation of goals.

BW: Can you describe the mental contrasting process in more detail?

GO: All you need to do is follow four steps, which we have called “WOOP”: Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan. What’s useful about WOOP, which is the more colloquial name for “mental contrasting with implementation intentions” (MCII), is that it provides a structure that allows taking control of effort exertion and behavior change in an automatic fashion. The “P” in WOOP stands for if-then plans, or “implementation intentions”; they have been discovered by Peter M. Gollwitzer. We have combined “mental contrasting” with “implementation intentions” to arrive at the combined strategy of “mental contrasting with implementation intentions,” or easier said, “WOOP.”

You start with identifying your wish — of any size, shape, and form. It can be a small wish, a life-changing wish. It can be a short-term wish, for the next half-hour, or it can be a very long-term wish. So you just think of a wish that is important for you right in this moment. You choose the wish. Then you imagine the best outcome. If your wish were fulfilled, where would that leave you? What would be the best, most positive outcome? How would fulfilling your wish make you feel? Next, you identify what is it within you that holds you back from fulfilling your wish. It might be an emotion, an irrational belief, a bad habit … Identify the obstacle that seems to be the most critical one of them all, and take a moment to imagine it and feel it. Finally, identify one action you can take or a thought you can have in order to overcome your obstacle.

It’s very easy. But what is important is that the strategy works through “non-conscious” processes. Mental contrasting with implementation intentions, or WOOP, is a conscious imagery strategy. It is different from all the kind of effort-related thinking, such as weighing options, thinking analytically, or comparing different options. So what you draw on are images. When you go through the images of WOOP, non-conscious cognitive processes, motivational processes, and feedback processes are triggered. These processes then predict changes in behavior.

BW: Could you elaborate on the processes that are responsible for behavior change?

GO: So, you have these three processes. There are the cognitive processes that are involved in recognizing the obstacle, and in building links between the future, the obstacle, and the behavior. There are also motivation processes through which you get the energy that prepares you to take action and fulfill your wish. Finally, there are the feedback processes, which help you be much better prepared to take setbacks and negative criticism along the way of your wish fulfillment.

All these processes run off by themselves. You don’t need to do anything. They do the trick for you. They naturally trigger your change in behavior. All you have to do is focus on the four steps of WOOP.

BW: So, you refer to inner obstacles. How about outside obstacles or circumstances? Shouldn’t we consider them as well?

GO: We investigated both cases. And what we discovered is that if you focus on the obstacles outside of yourself, then you often look at obstacles that are not controllable. I can’t control the political environment, at least not directly. I can’t control my company, my boss, not even my children or my partner! But I can control me, and how I deal with the political situation, how I deal with my company, with my boss, with my family. That is in my control. That’s the reason why we suggest focusing on the obstacles that are inside us because that takes away any excuses to not take action for your goal.

When you go through WOOP, you start changing yourself, and by the sheer force of changing yourself, your environment will start to change. We are finding in a lot of experiments now that even when the people themselves don’t recognize what they’re doing through mental contrasting and WOOP, other people around them begin to act more constructively and cooperatively. Then, the relationships get into gear and changes really start to occur.

For more information on the WOOP method, visit

This article was first published in Brain World Magazine’s Fall 2017 issue.

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