The Pitfalls of Positive Thinking

How rosy thoughts can lead to negative outcomes

From superstar athletes to self-help devotees, advocates of positive thinking—imagining yourself succeeding at something you want to happen—believe it is a surefire way to help you attain a goal. Past studies have backed that idea, too, but now researchers are refining the picture. Paint your fantasy in too rosy a hue, and you may be hurting your chances of success.

One possible explanation is that idealized thinking can sap motivation, as outlined in a study published earlier this year in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. Researchers asked college student volunteers to think through a fantasy version of an experience (looking attractive in a pair of high-heeled shoes, winning an essay contest, or getting an A on a test) and then evaluated the fantasy’s effect on the subjects and on how things unfolded in reality. When participants envisioned the most positive outcome, their energy levels, as measured by blood pressure, dropped, and they reported having a worse experience with the actual event than those who had conjured more realistic or even negative visions. To assess subjects’ real-life experiences, the researchers compared lists of goals that subjects had set for themselves against what they had actually accomplished and also relied on self-reports. “When you fantasize about it—especially when you fantasize something very positive—it’s almost like you are actually living it,” says Heather Barry Kappes of New York University, one of the study’s co-authors. That tricks the mind into thinking the goal has been achieved, draining the incentive to “get energized to go and get it,” she explains.  Subjects may be better off imagining how to surmount obstacles instead of ignoring them.

The approach may also apply to sports. A report published in the July issue of Perspectives on Psychological Findings suggests that talking oneself through the fine details of an athletic task may work better than picturing an optimal outcome. “It’s positive thinking, plus instructions,” says lead author Antonis Hatzigeorgiadis of the University of Thessaly in Greece.

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