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Science News

The Problem With Positive Thinking 158

An anonymous reader writes: The NY Times explains research into how our mindset can influence results. The common refrain when striving for a goal is to stay positive and imagine success — people say this will help you accomplish what you want. But a series of psychological experiments show such thinking tends to have exactly the opposite effect. "In a 2011 study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, we asked two groups of college students to write about what lay in store for the coming week. One group was asked to imagine that the week would be great. The other group was just asked to write down any thoughts about the week that came to mind. The students who had positively fantasized reported feeling less energized than those in the control group. As we later documented, they also went on to accomplish less during that week." This research has been replicated across many types of people and many different goals.

Building on that research, the scientists developed a thought process called "mental contrasting," where people are encouraged to think about their dreams coming true only for a few minutes before dedicating just as much time to thinking about the obstacles they'll have to deal with. Experiments have demonstrated that subjects using these techniques were more successful at things like exercise and maintaining a healthy diet than a control group. "[D]reaming about the future calms you down, measurably reducing systolic blood pressure, but it also can drain you of the energy you need to take action in pursuit of your goals."
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The Problem With Positive Thinking

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  • by russotto ( 537200 ) on Saturday October 25, 2014 @07:15PM (#48231561) Journal

    The negative thinkers/pessimists get all the work done, then the positive thinkers say "See, there was nothing to worry about" and take all the credit.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Positive thinking == false hopes

    • by ls671 ( 1122017 )

      Well, it is used a lot in organization such as Amway. If you think positive, you can become a billionaire.

      I have always wandered if it was a way to blame the person if he/she wasn't successful. Kind of: you didn't think positively enough..

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by AqD ( 1885732 )

        Nope. The trick is to convince your followers and customers to be positive, for that to happen you need to appear extremely positive.

    • Always expect the worst, that way you can never be disappointed. Life is mostly disappointment, really, and the rare exceptions are cause for joy and celebration.
  • Positive thinking (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Chrisq ( 894406 ) on Saturday October 25, 2014 @07:25PM (#48231601)
    Positive thinking .... I always knew it would never work
  • by Chuckstar ( 799005 ) on Saturday October 25, 2014 @07:28PM (#48231623)

    Positive thinkers already get some of the mental-benefit of the task being complete. Imagining being finished is just a little bit like being finished. That saps some of the motivation to finish, since they've already received part of the payoff. Negative thinkers have actually increased the payoff even more, because they get the additional payoff of having been wrong about their negativity.

    • by ArcadeMan ( 2766669 ) on Saturday October 25, 2014 @08:02PM (#48231747)

      So, wait... should I be positive about the fact that I'm negative? I'm feeling kinda neutral about the whole thing now...

    • by stephanruby ( 542433 ) on Saturday October 25, 2014 @10:18PM (#48232239)

      Positive thinkers already get some of the mental-benefit of the task being complete.

      I agree with this. This is like the guy who fantasizes about a woman he has a crush on without taking action. The more he fantasizes about that woman, the more he jerks off to her image, in the long-run -- the even less likely he'll be prepared to deal with her in real life. For the ladies, please reverse the genders into what I've just said, and the same will be true.

      It's like people who eat empty calories instead of eating proper meals, or people who love losing themselves in power fantasies created by comic books, hollywood studios, and game studios, instead of living life to the fullest in the real world (not that everybody is like that, I'm just talking about the more extreme cases, the ones that have truly substituted fantasy worlds for their own realities).

      That saps some of the motivation to finish, since they've already received part of the payoff.

      That's true to an extent, but some would say that if you think that motivation is a pre-condition needed to get things done, then you've already created yourself an extra mental barrier that will prevent you from getting things done in the first place.

      Action is not always the result of internal motivation. Just think of the last job you had, or the last difficult classes you've taken. Where you always motivated to work, or to study? Probably not, and yet, you probably still managed to show up to work and do it anyway, or study what needed to be studied. Often times, that extra motivation and that extra energy is not the pre-condition of the action, but the actual consequence of having taken that action in the first place.

      Case in point, I used to attend public speaking clubs (Toastmasters clubs) late at night. Often times, I've had a long day already before attending those meetings and I was unmotivated to go to those meetings. And yet when I still went anyway, my energy levels went up, not down, as a result. So if there is a perfect time for taking action, it's when you're feeling unmotivated. That feeling of unmotivation should be your internal trigger, instead of being the excuse you tell yourself for doing nothing.

      • The more he fantasizes about that woman, the more he jerks off to her image, in the long-run -- the even less likely he'll be prepared to deal with her in real life.

        And goes on to develop a sincere interest in ethics in game journalism.

      • instead of living life to the fullest in the real world

        Have you considered that they are, in fact, doing that? Not everyone has the same interests.

        • instead of living life to the fullest in the real world

          Have you considered that they are, in fact, doing that? Not everyone has the same interests.

          Here is the disclaimer I used in my previous post:

          ...I'm just talking about the more extreme cases, the ones that have truly substituted fantasy worlds for their own realities.

          • Yes, and that doesn't relate to what I said. There's nothing inherently wrong about living in fantasy. If they want to do that, I don't really care, and I'm not going to tell others whether or not they're living life to the fullest.

            • Yes, and that doesn't relate to what I said. There's nothing inherently wrong about living in fantasy. If they want to do that, I don't really care, and I'm not going to tell others whether or not they're living life to the fullest.

              There is nothing inherently wrong with being obese, depressed, dying early, either I suppose.

              It's just that I hope my own family members and my friends don't end up living that way.

      • the guy who fantasizes about a woman he has a crush on without taking action.

        Yeah, you realize in the real world we call these men "creepy" and call the police on them, or fabricate false rape charges should one ever make a move? Because they disgust us.

  • Interesting (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Max Galka ( 3890397 )
    Its always interesting to read articles that challenge the accepted wisdom
    • by khchung ( 462899 )

      Its always interesting to read articles that challenge the accepted wisdom

      Accepted only by the wishful thinkers.

      People who get stuff done, instead of just talking about it, knew all along that "positive thinking" is just junk believed by wishful thinkers who come along to take credit for the work.

  • That sounds like exactly what I normally do when I daydream.

    I have chronic depression that has kept me unemployed for most of my adult life, and I'm fat as hell. :|
  • Insanity later.

  • by Hairy1 ( 180056 ) on Saturday October 25, 2014 @07:44PM (#48231691) Homepage

    'Positive thinking' is essentially the vein hope that the current situation you judge as undesirable will change to something desirable just because you desire it. It fails to recognise that being happy and content can be achieved simply by changing your judgement. You can decide to be content with your life. The truth is that those external things; wealth, health, power and fame, are all fleeting. The only thing you really have control over is you. The solution isn't hoping that things will get better, it is accepting that they won't and pleasantly surprised if they do.

    • While I agree with most of your post, you are wrong about the "control" over you.
      Control over yourself is a dangerous belief !
      For example, if I'm fat and I want to lose some weight, I can diet, because after all, it's just a matter of will.
      I'll completely focus on my weight and if I notice that this doesn't work, I'll become depressed.

      In fact, the real solution is to act without expecting anything (this is called selfless action).
      If I have a positive return, it's unexpected so it's a nice surprise.
      If I have

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by Hairy1 ( 180056 )

        I think you have discovered for yourself the way to being content then is not to judge. The control I am talking about is the ability to do as you suggest; to not hold expectations or judgements. The externals are indifferent to you because you have no control over them. The only thing you have control over is your intentions and actions. Therefore the only thing you should be concerned about is how you honour yourself through your actions.

        I did not mean control over your physical body; health or the lack o

        • Sure, we agree about controlling the external reality (which leads to frustration), but what about controlling your internal reality ?

          The only thing that can truely be said as your own is your thoughts and actions.

          I'm still searching the "I" that you mention !
          Sure, thoughts and actions appear, but what is their source ?

          Also, it's easy to say that we should not expect something or judge others, but are you able to apply this for yourself ?
          That is: to not expect anything from yourself and to not judge yourself ?
          Are you able to surrender ?

    • vein hope

      Artery hope?

      Or is it a vain hope that educated people should be able to spell?

      Yes, I know. But it's the end of a long day on the road, and I feel like bitching about something....

    • the vein hope

      That's what fueled the Gold Rush of '49.

    • by Tyr07 ( 2300912 )

      Actually the trick is not being happy with the way things are and doing something to change them.
      You're not at the whims of the world, you're at the whims of yourself.

  • I just move them to whatever I've accomplished... *Mission Accomplished!*

  • Stockdale Paradox (Score:5, Interesting)

    by G-Man ( 79561 ) on Saturday October 25, 2014 @08:08PM (#48231771)
    From James Stockdales Wikipedia page:

    In a business book by James C. Collins called Good to Great, Collins writes about a conversation he had with Stockdale regarding his coping strategy during his period in the Vietnamese POW camp.[11]

    I never lost faith in the end of the story, I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade."[12]

    When Collins asked who didn't make it out of Vietnam, Stockdale replied:

    Oh, that's easy, the optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, 'We're going to be out by Christmas.' And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they'd say, 'We're going to be out by Easter.' And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart."[12]

    Stockdale then added:

    This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end - which you can never afford to lose - with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be."

    • I never doubted [...] that I would get out

      When Collins asked who didn't make it out of Vietnam, Stockdale replied:

      Oh, that's easy, the optimists.

      Sounds more like it was the lapsed optimists. What is Stockdale's first quote, if not optimistic?

      You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end - which you can never afford to lose - with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.

      How do you "confuse" those two things?

      Not really sure what life lesson I'm supposed to take away from this - stay optimistic, just don't set a deadline for it so you're never actually disappointed? If you get sent to a POW camp, don't think "I'll be out by next week," think "I'll be out before I die," because then if you are, great, and if you aren't, you won't know about it?

      • Stockdale's comments are easy to make because he got out. It's the story every single motivational speaker tells, but only after they've survived.

        I've known a fair number of pessimists who didn't make it.

    • by Kjella ( 173770 )

      This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end - which you can never afford to lose - with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be."

      Or to put it another way, the most irrational thought is the evolutionary winner. If you think you're going to die, why fight the inevitable? If you rationally think you'll win, your spirit will be broken when you don't. But if you believe against any rational hope that you'll survive, you'll fight any odds because youl think you'll beat them. It doesn't matter that they're wrong most of the time, all the ones who survive think they were destined to survive.

    • Re:Stockdale Paradox (Score:4, Informative)

      by eulernet ( 1132389 ) on Saturday October 25, 2014 @09:14PM (#48232051)

      Stockdale was impressed by stoicism, but he was a positive thinker.

      His premises are wrong: "I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life,"

      "I never doubted that I would get out " is positive thinking, especially when reality shows that this will be probably wrong.
      "turn the experience into the defining event of my life" is also positive thinking, it's called "peak performance" in positive thinking.

  • by physicsphairy ( 720718 ) on Saturday October 25, 2014 @08:22PM (#48231825) Homepage

    I don't see why establishing unrealistic views of reality would ever be constructive. Imagining the week will excel in every way and finding out that it doesn't isn't what I consider "positive thinking" -- obviously the week is going to fall short and then the lesson learned is not going to be a habit of thinking positive, it is going to be the opposite, that thinking positive is futile and incorrect.

    What I consider "positive thinking" is a realistic perspective which acknowledges the good and the bad but emphasizing the good aspects. Seeing losing your job as an opportunity to start a new chapter. Seeing the misfortune of others as an opportunity to help them. Being thankful for what you already have instead of craving everything you don't. It's a more accurate view in any case -- it's quite rare that losing a job or a relationship deprives the rest of your life of meaning or success, and solving problems actually does give the brain a sense of euphoria, so why should you be upset about encountering them?

    The mental contrasting approach the article describes seems oriented along those lines, but to me it's not a matter of "contrast" so much as a matter of compatibility -- positive thinking doesn't contrast with realism, realism simply sets the context in which positive thinking should take place.

  • The negative thinkers can turn into over-achievers. Thinking that if they're really productive, they will get promoted.

    Unfortunately for them, once they realize this is not the case, they get angry, frustrated, cynical.

    Meanwhile the positive thinkers become high performers, who achieve less individually and in any given week and realize that working as a group and motivating people is more important than individual contributions. They stay in the game longer and turn into good leaders. They get promoted

  • by Ol Olsoc ( 1175323 ) on Saturday October 25, 2014 @08:30PM (#48231851)
    The problem I see with positive thinking is that you'll be setting in a room with a group of people, and someone will have an idea. The the "positive thinkers all try to make th eidea sound like a great idea.

    And negative thinking doesn't help all that much either. Negative thinking just assumes nothing will ever work.

    Pragmatic thinking, on the other hand, asks "What might go wrong?" Pragmatic thinking says, "I want this to work well, but what would keep it from working?"

    Pragmatic thinking ends up getting things right much more often than either positive thinking oe negative thinking.

    People I worked with would always cringe when I'd say "Hold on a second!", until They found out how often I was right in the end. Eventually they'd bounce ideas off me for projects I wasn't even on to se if they forgot or didn't think of something.

  • by Phroggy ( 441 ) <slashdot3.phroggy@com> on Saturday October 25, 2014 @08:30PM (#48231853) Homepage

    Positive people are dangerous. Because they assume everything is going to be fine, they fail to plan for things to go wrong, and then after you're stuck cleaning up the mess they caused, they sweep it all under the rug and act like everything went smoothly - so not only do you get no recognition for your heroic efforts to fix everything, but they're fully confident in their ability to handle the next situation just as well as the last.

    But nobody wants to listen to the pessimists, because they're so negative.

    • Yeah, when people start talking about how great positive thinking is, I always think, "Sure, as long as things are going well."

      Your mindset is, to some degree, a prediction of the future. For that prediction to be helpful, it needs to be fairly accurate. Now many people will point out that predictions can be self-fulfilling, and a positive expectation is more likely to lead to a positive outcome. It's true. But it can also leave you unprepared for a negative outcome.

      I think positivity needs to be meas

  • by Livius ( 318358 ) on Saturday October 25, 2014 @08:51PM (#48231957)

    The idea behind positive thinking was never to simply visualize the positive goal, it was to envision the challenges and think through overcoming the challenges.

    Ignoring the challenges is an absence of thinking.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Exactly. It's supposed to be "visualize yourself completing the goal" not "visualize the goal completed". There's a huge difference between the two. The first focuses you to work. The second lets you sit back because it'll solve itself.

  • My dentist, of all places, has someone they employ who wanders around and asks you if you want a hand or neck massage while you are waiting.

    I loved the reaction the first time that I said "no thank you; I prefer to remain tense."

  • Thinking positively about the future has loads of negative effects. For example, increased Anger (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yuDAfU3uj6o).
  • Here I am, brain the size of a planet, and they ask me to be in their study. Call that job satisfaction, 'cause I don't.

  • Optimists and pessimists share the same shortcoming: both disregard how their action can influence how things will go on.
    • And they overvalue the effect that their optimism or pessimism will have on the outcome.

      My mom used to tell me that "worrying will not change the outcome one bit". The same goes for optimism.

      Of course, my mom also told me that I could be whatever I wanted to be, and Daniel Craig got to be James Bond and I didn't so what did she know, right?

  • The study is really more about setting unrealistic goals. You don't want to do that. But from a mental health perspective it is still good to manually steer the ship towards positivity as our minds are so clever picking all sorts of negative trash anyway.
  • A healthy balance is important.

    We could all complain here about the optimists, but the true pessimists would not be able to participate because they have all already killed themselves.
  • by Anonymous Coward

    In my experience, management consists of optimists, engineering consists of pessimists. Which is why managent is sure the project can be done with half the resources, in a third the time, while the engineers obsess over the thousand ways the product can fail. This is why good engineers are not wanted for management.

  • This all boils down to leading a balanced life. You want a healthy amount of optimism and hope grounded in reality. Leading a life looking too far into the future or the past is not necessarily healthy either. Zen Buddhism teaches that life must be balanced and will seek balance. Furthermore the philosophy teaches us to accept and embrace impermanence versus fear it. The sooner we learn to embrace impermanence, the less anxiety we experience. This then translates to a healthier mind, body, and spirit.
  • I suspect the optimal strategy is to dwell on the success just long enough to convince yourself the goal is achievable and then switch to the mindset of "ok, now I need to make it happen".

    Too much thinking about the positive and you feel like you've already won and lose the motivation to put in the work.

    But if you only dwell on the negatives your task seems impossible and you again have no reason to work.

    • I think you need to have confidence in yourself and believe that you can do something. But then you need to do the actual work, solve the problems, work for success. To me, there is a difference between fantasizing about success and believing in your ability to achieve it.

      In other words, I know I can do X. But to do it, I must do A, B, C, D, and overcome obstacles I, II, III, and IV. That's positive thinking combined with realism and the willingness to do what you have to do.

      • I think you need to have confidence in yourself and believe that you can do something. But then you need to do the actual work, solve the problems, work for success. To me, there is a difference between fantasizing about success and believing in your ability to achieve it.

        In other words, I know I can do X. But to do it, I must do A, B, C, D, and overcome obstacles I, II, III, and IV. That's positive thinking combined with realism and the willingness to do what you have to do.

        So for the last couple months I've been working on a start-up idea in my spare time. The thought process "I know I can do X. But to do it, I must do A, B, C, D, and overcome obstacles I, II, III, and IV." is a bad idea that turns me into a quivering blob hiding under my quilt.

        The long term obstacles are certainly achievable, but they're also a ton of work and extremely daunting since I can't do anything about them for a long time.

        If I want to get work done the key is to think of the long term goal but only

  • by SpaghettiPattern ( 609814 ) on Sunday October 26, 2014 @02:06AM (#48232763)
    In any setting I need to see shortcomings in order to improve on them. So called "positive thinkers" have a tough time dealing with that. (Usually their claim to fame on my work is that they too cooperated. Usually by not inhibiting me.) But as age grinds on, I learned to naturally word my concerns in a positive sounding fashion. I sometimes utter a kind of new-speak -which I detest- but it enables me to proceed with development, so I indulge.
  • Has anyone contacted Norman Vincent Peale about this?

    (I had to say it, there was no obligatory reference to him this entire thread.)

  • Positive thinking keeps you going.

    Negative thinking gets the job done.

    Having both gets the job done right.

    This article is definitely crafted for a targeted audience.

  • What was studied in both articles linked to is not what is usually meant by those who talk about the power of positive thinking. As others have pointed out the idea behind the power of positive thinking is imagining successfully completing the goal, not imagining having successfully completing the goal.

    I am a fencer. One of the people I fence with often says before they fence someone, "I can't beat them. I am a terrible fencer." Unsurprisingly, after saying this they usually lose, even against people I
  • Hope for the best, plan for the worst...
  • "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man." --George Bernard Shaw
  • ... given I watched "Pain and Gain" yesterday, in which Positive Thinking gobshite is held up as the inspiration behind meatheads torturing and murdering people. (It's a comedy).
  • Cheer up, my friends said, things could be worse. So I cheered up, and, sure enough, they got worse.

                    mark "if I am depressed, it is for good and sufficent reasons, and if I wasn't depressed, I wouldn't be facing reality"*

    * copyright, me, 1983

"Whoever undertakes to set himself up as a judge of Truth and Knowledge is shipwrecked by the laughter of the gods." -- Albert Einstein

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