Reality Check: A Model of Motivation

I have some ambivalence about the positive thinking business. It is a business, after all, with books, articles, and motivational speakers. Much of our culture encourages positive thinking, and you’ve even seen suggestions here in this column.

Positive thinking complements choice theory perspectives on offering information and self-evaluation. When one asks, “Is it more effective to look only at the negative possibilities or also at the positive possibilities?” that’s an encouragement to at least consider choosing a different, positive perception. Ultimately, it’s still up to you to choose.

However, if the simple act of thinking positively were a magic solution, we’d all be smiling optimists by now. If negative nellies saw conclusive evidence that positive thinkers are rewarded with happy, satisfied lives, they’d join in, too.

Well, that hasn’t happened, has it?

My ambivalence stems from questions such as: Does positive thinking alone really help us be more effective? Is it just a placebo that helps us feel better? What if (horrors!) it’s actually less helpful than negative thinking and planning for whatever can go wrong?

A research-based book titled “Rethinking Positive Thinking,” looks at those questions and answers them with a model of motivation. This simple model is referred to as WOOP, and research indicates that it’s highly effective.

The upshot of the research is that as delightful as it to indulge in positive fantasies, thinking positively alone is not so effective. More effective is to do what the author terms “mental contrasting.” That is, consider not only your positive wish, but also the obstacles that stand in your way.

Here’s a very simplified description of WOOP:

W: Wish: What’s your wish? For example, you might have a wish to exercise, eat better, improve a relationship, succeed at a task, etc. I’ll stick to a modest wish—to establish and maintain a tidy, organized office.

O: Best Outcome: If you get your wish, what would the best outcome look like? (This is the indulgent positive-thinking fantasy part.) I can easily envision the immaculate organized bookshelves, the uncrammed file cabinet, sunlight streaming over the pristine, uncluttered desktop. It’s exquisite.

O: The Obstacle: Here comes the mental contrasting. What is the most daunting obstacle standing in the way of achieving what you want? If your wish is more exercise, perhaps your obstacle is feeling tired, or cranky, or having no one to play/exercise with. For my organized-office fantasy, what’s between me and my joy? Many obstacles: Not knowing where to put stuff. Fatigue. Lack of time. The biggest obstacle? Procrastination.

P: Plan: How to prevent the obstacle, overcome the obstacle, or seize an opportunity when it presents itself. This may be best worded as “If-Then.” For example, “If I decide to organize the office after work today, but instead choose to procrastinate, then I will remind myself of how much more efficient I am when it’s uncluttered, and start with half an hour on the desktop.”

To learn more about WOOP, ask your library for “Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation” by Gabriele Oettingen.

Would this approach motivate you? More importantly, will I get my office organized?

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