Too Much Positive Thinking Creates Relaxed Complacency

(p. D5) In her smart, lucid book, “Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation,” Dr. Oettingen critically re-examines positive thinking and give readers a more nuanced — and useful — understanding of motivation based on solid empirical evidence.
Conventional wisdom has it that dreams are supposed to excite us and inspire us to act. Putting this to the test, Dr. Oettingen recruits a group of undergraduate college students and randomly assigns them to two groups. She instructs the first group to fantasize that the coming week will be a knockout: good grades, great parties and the like; students in the second group are asked to record all their thoughts and daydreams about the coming week, good and bad.
Strikingly, the students who were told to think positively felt far less energized and accomplished than those who were instructed to have a neutral fantasy. Blind optimism, it turns out, does not motivate people; instead, as Dr. Oettingen shows in a series of clever experiments, it creates a sense of relaxation complacency. It is as if in dreaming or fantasizing about something we want, our minds are tricked into believing we have attained the desired goal.
There appears to be a physiological basis for this effect: Studies show that just fantasizing about a wish lowers blood pressure, while thinking of that same wish — and considering not getting it — raises blood pressure. It may feel better to daydream, but it leaves you less energized and less prepared for action.
. . .
In one study, she taught a group of third graders a mental-contrast exercise: They were told to imagine a candy prize they would receive if they finished a language assignment, and then to imagine several of their own behaviors that could prevent them from winning. A second group of students was instructed only to fantasize about winning the prize. The students who did the mental contrast outperformed those who just dreamed.

For the full review, see:
RICHARD A. FRIEDMAN, M.D. “Books; Dare to Dream of Falling Short.” The New York Times (Tues., DEC. 23, 2014): D5.
(Note: italics in original; ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the review has the date DEC. 22, 2014.)

The book under review, is:
Oettingen, Gabriele. Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation. New York: Current, 2014.

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