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While there is a growing body of research on free thoughts such as fantasies and daydreams, the question of whether and how fantasies lead to effortful action and successful performance has hardly been investigated. The present article will show that, counter to what the popular self-help literature proposes, positive thinking can be detrimental to effort and success if it comes in the form of fantasies (free thoughts and images about the desired future) rather than beliefs (expectations). The article will then discuss fantasy realisation theory (FRT), which specifies how fantasies can be used to wisely self-regulate goal pursuit. The theory argues that the strategy of mental contrasting future and reality will produce both active goal pursuit and active goal disengagement, depending on a person's high versus low expectations of success, respectively. Research supporting these ideas across life domains points to non-conscious cognitive and motivational processes responsible for the effects of mental contrasting, and it depicts context variables (e.g., sad mood) that influence the rise and usage of mental contrasting. Intervention studies attest to mental contrasting as a content-free, time- and cost-effective metacognitive strategy that people can use to regulate their own goal pursuits in an autonomous way, thus helping people to become masters of their everyday life and long-term development.
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European Review of Social
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Future thought and behaviour
change
Gabriele Oettingen a b
a Psychology Department, New York University, New
York, NY, USA
b Department of Psychology, University of Hamburg,
Hamburg, Germany
Available online: 13 Mar 2012
To cite this article: Gabriele Oettingen (2012): Future thought and behaviour change,
European Review of Social Psychology, 23:1, 1-63
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Future thought and behaviour change
Gabriele Oettingen
Psychology Department, New York University, New York, NY, USA; and
Department of Psychology, University of Hamburg, Hamburg, Germany
While there is a growing body of research on free thoughts such as fantasies and
daydreams, the question of whether and how fantasies lead to effortful action
and successful performance has hardly been investigated. The present article will
show that, counter to what the popular self-help literature proposes, positive
thinking can be detrimental to effort and success if it comes in the form of
fantasies (free thoughts and images about the desired future) rather than beliefs
(expectations). The article will then discuss fantasy realisation theory (FRT),
which specifies how fantasies can be used to wisely self-regulate goal pursuit. The
theory argues that the strategy of mental contrasting future and reality will
produce both active goal pursuit and active goal disengagement, depending on a
person’s high versus low expectations of success, respectively. Research
supporting these ideas across life domains points to non-conscious cognitive
and motivational processes responsible for the effects of mental contrasting, and
it depicts context variables (e.g., sad mood) that influence the rise and usage of
mental contrasting. Intervention studies attest to mental contrasting as a content-
free, time- and cost-effective metacognitive strategy that people can use to
regulate their own goal pursuits in an autonomous way, thus helping people to
become masters of their everyday life and long-term development.
Keywords: Self-regulation; Behaviour change; Future thought; Intervention;
Implicit cognition; Fantasies.
Research on thinking about the future investigates people’s capacity to
anticipate future events and scenarios. Anticipation of future events may
come in a variety of forms with different structural attributes, contents, and
functions. Such future thought may refer to the immediate future or to the
extended or distant future; it may be specific or vague, concrete or abstract,
and it may pertain to learning or performance, to movements of approach,
Correspondence should be addressed to Gabriele Oettingen, New York University,
Psychology Department, 6 Washington Place, 7th Floor, New York, NY 10003, USA.
E-mail: gabriele.oettingen@nyu.edu
EUROPEAN REVIEW OF SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY
2012, 23, 1–63
Ó2012 European Association of Social Psychology
http://www.psypress.com/ersp http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10463283.2011.643698
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freezing, or avoidance (e.g., Bandura, 1997; Dweck & Leggett, 1988; Elliot,
1997; Klinger, 1977; Gollwitzer, 1999; Gray & McNaughton, 2000; Locke &
Latham, 2002; Oettingen & Mayer, 2002; Taylor, Pham, Rivkin, & Armor,
1998). Importantly, future thought may come in the form of beliefs or
judgements about the likelihood of certain events, or it may come in the
form of free thoughts about future events regardless of their likelihood
(Oettingen & Mayer, 2002).
Emerging from neo-behaviourist theory (e.g., Tolman, 1938; see also
Rescorla, 1985; Seligman, 1972), there is extensive literature on people’s
beliefs or judgements of whether certain anticipated events may happen or
not. Until the present day this literature has been very influential in social
psychology and other areas of psychology as well, because expectancy
judgements, which reflect a person’s experience and performance in the past,
have relatively high predictive value of specified intentions and actual
behaviour (Bandura, 1977; Fishbein & Ajzen, 1975; Maddux, 1999; Mischel,
1973; Oettingen & Mayer, 2002; Scheier & Carver, 1992; Seligman, 1972;
Taylor, 1989; Taylor, Kemeny, Reed, Bower, & Gruenewald, 2000).
However, future thought may not necessarily refer to beliefs or judgements
about the likelihood that future events and behaviours will occur. It may
also appear as free thoughts about such events and behaviours, as
daydreams or fantasies, as images or mental simulations, as mind-
wandering, task-unrelated thoughts, or as counterfactual thinking.
FREE THOUGHTS VERSUS BELIEFS
William James (1890) extensively described the phenomenon of free thoughts
and images and convincingly differentiated them from beliefs. He states:
‘‘Everyone knows the difference between imagining a thing and believing in its
existence, between supposing a proposition and acquiescing in its truth’
(James, 1890, p. 283). Thus a thing may appear in the stream of thought
regardless of whether it is believed to be true or false; it may appear as the
sheer thought or image per se or as a consenting or disagreeing judgement
regarding its degree of truth. William James refers to I. Brentano: ‘‘But we
must insist that, so soon as the object of a thought becomes the object of an
assenting or rejecting judgement, our consciousness steps into an entirely new
relation towards it. It is then twice present in consciousness, as thought of, and
as held for real or denied’’ (Brentano cited according to James, 1890, p. 286).
William James focused on images as opposed to beliefs regarding events
in the present or past. One may more or less embellish present or past events
in one’s thoughts, or one may arrive at a judgement about whether the
events actually take or took place in the way one has thought about them.
While imagery keeps events in fluctuation, beliefs imply a cognitive
determination about the event’s degree of truth, which is a relief to the
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prior ‘‘theoretic agitation’’ (James, 1890). It is the cognitive determination
regarding the degree of truth of present and past events that distinguishes
the sheer image or thought about the present and past from the respective
belief or judgement.
In this chapter, rather than focusing on thoughts about the present or
past, I will focus on thoughts about the future: specifically, on free
thoughts or images about the future. So far, research on future thought
has predominantly investigated beliefs in the form of expectancy
judgements. Such expectancy judgements refer to the likelihood that
anticipated events or behaviours will or will not occur (Ajzen & Fishbein,
1980; Bandura, 1977, 1997; Bandura & Locke, 2003; Carver & Scheier,
2009; Fishbein & Ajzen, 2010; Mischel, 1973; Seligman, 1991; Taylor
et al., 2000). As the cognitive determination derived from expectancy
judgements reflects past performance, it comes as no surprise that these
judgements are one of the pivotal predictors of intention formation and
behaviour change.
Contrary to expectancy judgements, in free thoughts or images future
events are not tested for their degree of truth, nor do they necessarily reflect
a person’s performance history. Fantasies about the future are not
constrained by the cognitive mechanisms that make people appraise factual
information (Klinger, 1971, 1990; Singer, 1966). Future events do not need
to be depicted in their wholeness, logical consistency, and in their real
consequences. A person may thus embellish future events in the mind’s eye
without considering their potentially low feasibility (i.e., low expectations of
success) and without considering the cumbersome steps necessary to realise
these successes. In short, when fantasising about the future, one needs not
consider one’s expectations of successfully realising these fantasies nor the
present reality that stands in the way of fantasy realisation.
Some free thoughts and fantasies may come in the form of Zauberdenken
(i.e., thoughts depicting actions and events that violate natural laws or social
norms; Lewin, 1926; Mahler, 1933). However, people most frequently
fantasise about not yet realised but principally possible futures. Such
fantasies will, in particular, unfold their effects on motivation and action
(Oettingen & Mayer, 2002). For example, adolescents may fantasise about
becoming brilliant college students, middle-aged adults may see themselves
reaching financial security, or the elderly may imagine improving their
family relationships. In this sense, free thoughts and fantasies resemble
daydreams (i.e., thoughts pertaining to immediate or delayed desires that
include instrumental activities to attain the desired outcomes; Klinger, 1971,
1990). However, even though free thoughts in the form of fantasies depict
events obeying natural and social laws, they still may be disconnected from
the perceived probabilities of successfully realising them. People can
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experience future blessings in their fantasies without considering the
probabilities that these blessings will actually come true.
According to William James, thoughts and images about the past refer to
what has happened and what could have happened. Thus they resemble
what has more recently been termed rumination (Martin & Tesser, 1989;
Moberly & Watkins, 2008; Nolen-Hoeksema, 2000; Nolen-Hoeksema,
Wisco, & Lyubomirsky, 2008) and counterfactual thinking (Epstude &
Roese, 2008; Kahneman & Miller, 1986; Markman & McMullen, 2003;
Smallman & Roese, 2009). However, there is a decisive difference between
images about the past and images about the future. Images about the past
depict events that already have happened (or could have happened) in a
certain way, and thus the events are behaviourally closed (i.e., nothing can
be done to change things). Events that are depicted in images about the
future, on the contrary, may become true or they may not become true.
Therefore thoughts and images about future events have particular
relevance for behaviour.
FREE THOUGHTS IN SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY
In social psychology, expectancy judgements about future events have been
widely researched during the past decades. However, there has been a dearth
of empirical investigations into free thoughts and images as they appear to
the mind’s eye. It is only recently that researchers have investigated this
topic more extensively. While Jerome Singer (1966, 1975), an early pioneer
of fantasy research, had his participants rate their own daydreams and
fantasies regarding various attributes (such as frequencies, tense, affect,
acceptance, and subjective experience), more recent approaches to the
phenomena of free thoughts and images analyse the emotional and neuro-
psychological underpinnings of mental time travel and episodic future
thinking, as well as their consequences (e.g., Schacter & Addis, 2007;
Szpunar, 2010). They also question how the emergence and content of
mental simulations about the future result from heuristics and physiological
states (e.g., Kahneman & Tversky, 1982). The role of the self has been of
central interest: To what extent do thoughts that connect one’s current self
with the future self involve conscious awareness or ‘‘autonoetic conscious-
ness’’? Can such thoughts occur in humans and non-human primates alike
(Tulving, 2005)? Recent research on free thoughts and images about the
future also investigates the conditions that lead to mind-wandering or task-
unrelated thoughts (Killingsworth & Gilbert, 2010; Smallwood & Schooler,
2006). Free thoughts are targeted in studies on affective forecasting
(Morewedge, Gilbert, Myrseth, Kassam, & Wilson, 2010; Wilson & Gilbert,
2005), anticipated regret (Gilbert, Morewedge, Risen, & Wilson, 2004), and
mental simulations (Kahneman & Tversky, 1982; Taylor et al., 1998).
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Originating from earlier work by Eric Klinger on the structure and
content of fantasies and their motivational concomitants, recent research
has also started to approach the question of the cognitive, affective, and
motivational concomitants and consequences of free thoughts, such as
daydreams and fantasies. Eric Klinger (1975) postulated that the frequency
of daydreams and fantasies of certain content is an indication of current
concerns (or goal commitment; Oettingen & Gollwitzer, 2001) with
respective consequences for selective attention and information processing.
Similarly, research spelling out the notion of mindsets has looked at the
information-processing concomitants of a deliberative versus an implemen-
tation mindset. The former fosters cognitive tuning towards making an
informed decision and the latter fosters cognitive tuning towards planning
and goal striving (Gollwitzer, 1990). Free thoughts and images about the
future have also been conceptualised as planning the course of an action
(Hayes-Roth & Hayes-Roth, 1979). Planning may involve anticipation of
opportune situations to behave in goal-directed ways (i.e., if situation x
arises, then I will perform behaviour y). Such if-then plans, or implementa-
tion intentions (Gollwitzer, 1999), have been investigated in their effects on
goal striving, but also in the context of research on prospective memory (i.e.,
remembering to act on one’s intentions), showing the neurophysiological
concomitants of automatic goal striving (S. J. Gilbert, Gollwitzer, Cohen,
Oettingen, & Burgess, 2009). Mindsets, planning, and implementation
intentions all contain free thoughts about the future, although the free
thoughts are organised in a predetermined and highly structured framework.
FREE THOUGHTS AND BEHAVIOUR
The named approaches investigate the structure and content of thoughts
and images of future events and behaviours. It is striking that many of them
have developed and are still developing in relative independence of each
other (e.g., fantasies and daydreams, mental simulations, mind wandering,
planning, prospective memory). Even more strikingly, relatively little
research has been done on the behavioural consequences of free thoughts
and images, although there are notable exceptions. For example, mental
simulations related to the process of reaching a goal (process simulations)
rather than to the outcome of the goal (outcome simulations) were found to
spur plans and reduce anxiety, thereby facilitating performance (Taylor
et al., 1998). In the same vein, counterfactual thinking depicting how a
negative event or setback could have gone better in the past triggers negative
thoughts about the future that in turn predict efforts of remedy (Epstude &
Roese, 2008; Markman, Gavanski, Sherman, & McMullen, 1993; Smallman
& Roese, 2009). Finally, once people feel committed to a goal, forming
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implementation intentions or if-then plans spur automatic goal striving
(Gollwitzer, 1999).
It is the behavioural change caused by free thoughts and images about the
future that I will focus on in the present chapter. Thus the research
complements both the plentiful findings on the behavioural consequences of
expectancy judgements on the one hand, and the recent approaches to the
structure and content of free thoughts and images on the other hand.
Focusing on the role of free thoughts in terms of fantasies and daydreams
for behaviour change, the present research will involve correlational,
experimental, and intervention studies. Methods range from reaction time
and neuroimaging techniques to observations and content analyses. Samples
stem from different life-stages and cultures, and study themes tap into
diverse life domains, including achievement, interpersonal, and health
domains.
The present chapter has three parts. First, based on the distinction
between positive thoughts about the future in terms of fantasies versus
expectancy judgements, I will report on a series of studies showing that
positive thinking in terms of future fantasies can have detrimental effects on
effort and success, while expectancy judgements offer known benefits.
However, positive fantasies are not necessarily motivationally bad. There-
fore the second part of the chapter will refer to positive fantasies as a source
of wise goal selection and selective goal striving: By contrasting positive
fantasies about the future with the present reality standing in the way of
fantasy realisation (mental contrasting), people can discriminate in their
goal pursuit (commitment and striving) between goals that are promising
and goals that are futile. Thus mental contrasting allows people to pursue
the futures they want and are able to achieve; at the same time, people can
relinquish those futures they either do not want, or that they want but
cannot achieve.
Finally, in the third part of the chapter I will explore the translational
implications of the present research. A series of intervention studies shows
that mental contrasting can be taught as a metacognitive strategy, and that
teaching it is cost- and time-effective. Mental contrasting may be
successfully applied—either by itself or in combination with if-then
plans—to equip people to become masters of their everyday life and long-
term goals. By becoming their own therapists or coaches people can now
realise their idiosyncratic goals—be they small or large, near or far, specific
or vague, concrete or abstract, and self-directed or other-directed.
POSITIVE FANTASY AND PERFORMANCE
The self-help literature and the coaching industry (e.g., Hill & Stone, 1997;
McWilliams, 1995; Peale, 2003) persistently try to persuade us that to ‘‘think
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positive’’ is an effective means of getting what we want. And while
empirical research reliably finds that high expectations of success and
optimistic beliefs indeed foster motivation and successful performance
(Bandura, 1997; Heckhausen, 1991; Seligman, 1991; Taylor & Brown,
1988), recent research reveals that alternate forms of thinking positively
about the future (e.g., positive fantasies; Oettingen & Mayer, 2002; wishful
thinking and other avoidant coping styles; Connor-Smith & Flachsbart,
2007; Holahan, Moos, Holahan, Brennan, & Schutte, 2005; Lengua &
Sandler, 1996) are less beneficial for effortful action, performance, and well
being. At first glance it seems contradictory that optimistic beliefs and
positive thoughts should lead to such disparate motivational outcomes.
However, whether one judges a desired future as within reach (i.e., has
positive expectations about a desired future) or mentally indulges in free
thoughts about a desired future (i.e., has positive fantasies about a desired
future) may have very different implications for effortful action and
successful performance.
In line with these considerations, Oettingen and Mayer (2002)
distinguish between two ways of thinking about the future: expectations
(beliefs) and fantasies (free thoughts). As outlined above, expectations are
judgements of how likely it is that certain events or behaviours will occur
in the future (Bandura, 1977; Mischel, 1973; see review by Olson, Roese, &
Zanna, 1996). Based on experiences in the past and thus on a person’s
performance history, expectations specify the probability of whether an
event or behaviour will actually happen or not. These expectancy
judgements may be conceptualised in several ways: as self-efficacy
expectations (i.e., whether one can perform a certain behaviour in its
relative context; Bandura, 1997), as outcome expectations (i.e., whether
performing the behaviour will produce the desired outcome; Bandura,
1997), as general expectations (i.e., whether a certain event will occur;
Heckhausen, 1991; Oettingen & Wadden, 1991), or as generalised
expectations (i.e., whether the future in general will be positive or
negative; Scheier & Carver, 1992). Conversely, free fantasies are future
events or behaviours that appear in the mind (Klinger, 1990; Singer, 1966),
regardless of whether it is deemed likely or unlikely that they will occur.
For example, despite having minimal chances of getting an A in a course,
an undergraduate student can indulge in positive fantasies about receiving
the best possible grade.
The two ways of thinking about the future should differentially predict
effort and performance. As expectations judge the likelihood of future
outcomes by applying past facts to future events (Bandura, 1977, 1997;
Mischel, 1973), these types of beliefs provide a valid base for behavioural
investment (e.g., Bandura, 1997). Specifically, high expectations of success
reflect a successful performance history, which signals that future success
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will be likely and that respective investment will be worthwhile. In
contrast, positive fantasies reflect one’s wishes for the future, which
embellish the future regardless of past performance and the probability of
future occurrences (Klinger, 1990; Singer, 1966). Therefore, positive
fantasies fail to serve as a solid basis for behaviour. Furthermore,
indulging in images of a desired and smoothly attained future should yield
little energy and effort to achieve the desired future. Fantasising to have
already reached the desired future may also impair relevant precautions;
for example, people may fail to anticipate potential obstacles and
hindrances (Gollwitzer, 1999; Taylor et al., 1998); they may not develop
strategies to resist temptations or shield against distractions (Achtziger,
Gollwitzer, & Sheeran, 2008; Shah, Friedman, & Kruglanski, 2002); and
they may fail to take advantage of opportunities to act towards the desired
future (Taylor et al., 1998). The following series of studies examines the
motivational power of future thought—in terms of expectations versus
fantasy.
Positive fantasy: Weight loss
Early on, Oettingen and Wadden (1991) tested these ideas in obese women
enrolled in a weight reduction programme. Participants had an average
weight of 106.4 kg (SD ¼16.9) and a body mass index (weight in kilograms/
height in metres squared) of 39.1 (SD ¼6.3). Before the start of the
programme participants indicated the number of pounds they wished to lose
in the programme and the likelihood of reaching this weight loss.
Expectations of successfully reaching the goal were measured by three
related questions: ‘‘How likely do you think it is that during this weight
reduction programme you will lose the amount of weight (that you have
specified)?’’, ‘‘Do you feel that you will be successful in the weight loss
programme?’’, and ‘‘How confident are you that after this programme is
completed, you will have lost the amount of weight you specified?’’
Questions were answered using 7-point scales (1 ¼low, 7 ¼high).
To measure weight-related fantasies, each participant was asked to
vividly imagine herself as the main character in four hypothetical weight-
and food-related scenarios. Two stories were designed to elicit fantasies
about the participant’s weight loss, whereas two others described encounters
with tempting foods. Each story led to an unspecified outcome which
participants were asked to complete (in writing) by describing the stream of
thought that occurred to them. Scenarios were open-ended in order to elicit
a variety of responses. One of the scenarios read: ‘‘You have just completed
Penn’s weight loss programme. Tonight you have made plans to go out with
an old friend whom you haven’t seen in about a year. As you wait for your
friend to arrive, you imagine . . .’’ Another scenario asked participants to
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imagine that they are confronted with the temptation of a leftover box of
doughnuts in the lunch room. Participants rated the positivity and
negativity of their thoughts and images to each scenario (using 7-point
scales; 1 ¼low, 7 ¼high). Thus we measured whether participants positively
fantasised about an idealised outcome and whether they imagined an
idealised process to reach the outcome. Internal consistency was high
(Cronbach’s alpha ¼.70).
Participants with positive expectations about losing weight (i.e., ‘‘It is
likely that I will lose the indicated amount of weight’’) lost on average 26
pounds more than those with negative expectations (i.e., ‘‘It is unlikely that I
will lose the indicated amount of weight’’). However, participants with
positive fantasies (e.g., those who imagined shining when going out with the
friend and easily resisting the temptation of the leftover box of doughnuts in
the lunch room) lost on average 24 pounds less than participants with
negative fantasies (e.g., those who imagined having disappointed the friend
and having a hard time resisting the leftover box of doughnuts in the lunch
room). In short, while positive expectations predicted successful weight loss,
positive fantasies predicted little success in reaching one’s desired weight.
Positive fantasy: Health, achievement, and interpersonal
relations
Other studies supported this pattern of results (Oettingen & Mayer, 2002; see
Table 1). In one study (Study 4), involving patients undergoing hip
replacement surgery, we asked participants in the evening before their surgery
to rate their expectations of recovery and measured the positivity of their
recovery fantasies, much in the same way as in the weight loss study reported
above. Specifically, we assessed fantasies by having participants imagine
themselves in five scenarios. The scenarios were interrupted in the middle, and
patients had to imagine them to their completion. One scenario read as
follows: ‘‘You wake up after surgery in the wake-up room. You feel your body
increasingly clearly . . .’’ The other four scenarios described going to the
hospital’s shopping area to buy a newspaper, taking a walk with friends,
tidying up the living room and kitchen, and preparing a dinner invitation. Two
weeks after the surgery, physical therapists assessed their patients’ range of hip
joint motion, the number of stairs they could walk, and their general recovery.
On all three variables the more positive the expectations the more success the
patients had; however, the more positive the fantasies the less successful they
were (Oettingen & Mayer, 2002, Study 4). These results provide further
evidence that positive expectations predict high effort and successful
performance, while positive fantasies predict low effort and poor performance.
In another study (Oettingen & Mayer, 2002, Study 1) we measured
expectations and fantasies about transition into work life among university
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graduates. Participants indicated how probable they thought it was that they
would find an adequate job in their field. This measure of general
expectations encompassed self-efficacy expectations, outcome expectations
(Bandura, 1997), and expectations concerning external factors (e.g., the
economic situation). To measure the valence of the fantasies we first asked
whether during their everyday life students had already experienced positive
thoughts, images, or fantasies on the subject of transition into work life,
graduating from university, looking for and finding a job. Then they were
told: ‘‘Please now generate such positive thoughts, images, or fantasies and
write them down.’’ A half page with lines was prepared for participants to
write on. Finally participants had to indicate: ‘‘How frequently did you
experience such thoughts and images?’’ The 10-point scale ranged from very
rarely to very often. Participants were then given the exact same instructions
with respect to negative fantasies (i.e., only the word positive was replaced by
the word negative). To arrive at an overall scale of the valence of career-
related future fantasies we subtracted reported frequencies of negatively
toned fantasies from those of positively toned fantasies.
Then 2 years later we contacted students again. Those with positive
expectations of successfully finding a suitable job after college graduation
had received more job offers and had earned higher salaries over the course
of the 2 years than those reporting more negative expectations of success.
However, the more positive than negative fantasies about finding a suitable
job after college participants had, the less successful in their job search over
2 years they were, sending out fewer applications, receiving fewer job offers,
and ultimately earning less money.
Other similar studies focused on fantasies about starting a romantic
relationship and achieving academic success (e.g., performing well on a
midterm exam; Oettingen & Mayer, 2002, Studies 2 and 3; see Table 1). The
reported pattern of findings applies for short-term and long-term success (up
to 2 years), for subjective as well as for objective indicators of success (e.g.,
reported effort and actual course grades), for different measures of fantasy
(frequency, valence), and for samples of different ages and cultural
backgrounds (younger and older adults; German and U.S.). In sum,
positive expectations predicted high effort and successful performance, while
positive fantasies predicted low effort and poor performance. Importantly,
low effort mediated the predictive relation between positive fantasies and
poor performance (Oettingen & Mayer, 2002, Study 3).
Positive fantasy and expectation: Mutual suppressor effects
In the studies reported above, high expectations of success and positivity of
fantasies showed positive correlations (reaching from r¼.21 to r¼.37).
Consequently, partial correlations tended to be higher than raw correlations
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TABLE 1
Success and effort as predicted by expectation and fantasy: Studies 1, 2, 3, and 4
Index Positivity scale Negativity scale
Success and effort Expectation Fantasy Expectation Fantasy Expectation Fantasy
Study 1
Number of job offers .41*** (.30*) 7.39** (7.26*)
Amount of salary .33* (.25) 7.29* (7.19)
Number of applications 7.04 (7.17) 7.40** (7.43**)
Study 2
Intimate relationship .55*** (.53***) 7.23* (7.10)
Confession of love .11 (.07) 7.21* (7.20)
Study 3
Course grades .21** (.17) 7.16* (7.10) .22** (.17) 7.19* (7.13) .19* (.17) .11 (.05)
Study effort .20* (.12) 7.25** (7.19*) .20* (.12) 7.27** (7.22*) .17* (.12) .19* (.15)
Study 4
Hip joint motion .27* (.10) 7.43*** (7.37**) .24* (.10) 7.39** (7.33**) .27* (.10) .44*** (.37**)
Walking on stairs .37** (.25*) 7.36** (7.23*) .35** (.25*) 7.33** (7.22) .36** (.25*) .35** (.23*)
General recovery .30* (.20) 7.31* (7.21) .28* (.20) 7.27* (7.18) .31* (.20) .32** (.22*)
Partial correlation coefficients controlled for the other predictor variable; raw correlation coefficients in parentheses. *p5.05. **p5.01. ***p5.001.
From ‘‘The motivating function of thinking about the future: Expectations versus fantasies’’, by G. Oettingen & D. Mayer (2002). Journal of Personality
and Social Psychology,83, 1198-1212. Copyright 2002 by the American Psychological Association, Inc. Reprinted with permission.
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(see Table 1, raw correlations in parentheses), suggesting that the two
predictor variables acted as mutual suppressor variables. High expectations
of success might have facilitated positive fantasies (Klinger, 1977), and
positive fantasies might have raised respective expectations of success
(Anderson & Godfrey, 1987; summary by Tversky & Koehler, 1994).
Regardless of how the positive relation between expectations and fantasies
emerged, the observed mutual suppressor effects suggest that future research
will benefit from measuring both expectations and fantasies, because both
will predict behaviour most accurately when the other type of thinking
about the future is statistically adjusted.
Positive fantasy: Outcome versus process
Positive fantasies regarding both outcome as well as process contributed to
low effort and success. In the weight loss study both scenarios about
outcome and process fantasies (e.g., referring to meeting a friend after the
weight loss programme and being left with tempting foods) predicted low
success. In addition, Oettingen and Mayer (2002, Study 4) content-analysed
the degree of idealisation as well as the extent to which participants’
fantasies referred to outcome versus process in the hip replacement patients.
Positive fantasies about successful recovery outcomes and about a successful
recovery process correlated positively with idealisation (e.g., ‘‘My friends are
completely amazed how I am doing’’ and ‘‘I am practicing walking on the
stair-ways downwards – without help, and I walk easily and quickly to the
newspaper stand’’), suggesting that the idealising attributes of positive
fantasies rather than their content (process versus outcome) hurt successful
performance.
These results speak to the literature on process versus outcome
simulations (Taylor et al., 1998), which finds process simulations leading
to better performances than outcome simulations. The seeming contra-
diction is readily explained, however, when considering how the two lines of
research conceptualise and operationalise process simulations. In fantasy
research, positive process fantasies depict an ideal, easy, and straightforward
way to reach the desired future. In contrast, Taylor and her colleagues
(1998) conceptualise process simulations as visualisations of the cumber-
some way to reach the desired future. For example, in an experiment with
students studying for their midterm exam those in the process simulation
condition ‘‘were told to visualise themselves sitting at their desks, on their
beds, or the library, and studying the chapters, going over the lecture notes,
eliminating distractions such as turning off the television or stereo . . .’’
(p. 432). Process simulations, in contrast to positive fantasies, do not feign
easy success but depict the cumbersome steps of moving towards the desired
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future. In that way the motivational superiority of process simulations over
outcome simulations is well in line with what we find for negative fantasies.
These negative or questioning fantasies depict the obstacles and hindrances
to fantasy realisation, the laborious and tedious steps to overcome these
impediments, and they question whether reaching the desired future will
indeed be so ideal. As our results show, these more negative fantasies benefit
effort and performance rather than the positive fantasies, whether the latter
relate to outcome or process.
Positive fantasy: Disadvantaged students
More recently we also observed that positive fantasies (experiencing one’s
thoughts and mental images about the future positively) predict poor effort
and low success in adolescent and adult students of low socioeconomic
status and minority ethnicity who are enrolled in vocational-education
programmes. We had wrongly suspected that, for individuals who find their
present environment especially difficult (and therefore may be in particular
need of positive fantasies), perhaps it would be appropriate to indulge in
positive fantasies that depict the future as bright and easily attained.
However, in three studies H. B. Kappes, Oettingen, and Mayer (2012)
showed that such beneficial effects of positive fantasies do not play out.
Positive-future fantasies early in the programme, measured by asking
participants to rate their own fantasies to relevant scenarios (similar to the
studies described before), predicted more days absent (Studies 2–3) and
lower grades at the end of the programme (Studies 1–3), even when
adjusting for initial academic competence, expectations of successful
achievement, and self-discipline. Regarding the predictive power of
expectations we observed results supporting our notion that expectations
rather than fantasies are based on experiences in the past. Specifically,
expectations of successful achievement predicted fewer days absent and
higher grades only when measured midway through the school year, once
participants had experience with their own academic standing (Study 3).
Results indicate that positive fantasies, which allow people to indulge in
images of a bright future, predict poor achievement even in vocational
students immersed in a particularly difficult environment.
Positive fantasy: Symptoms of depression
So far we have shown that positive fantasies predict poor effort and
performance, even in individuals having to cope with disadvantaged
environments. Based on these findings one may conclude that low effort
and performance might eventually also impair a person’s mental health.
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Specifically, although positive fantasies may take away the negative mood of
the moment, they may conjure negative mood in the long run, because
success is scarce and failure impending. That is, positive fantasies may be of
little protection against depressive moods in the future. Indeed, in four
studies Oettingen, Mayer, and Portnow (2011) show that the relation of
positive future fantasies and depressive symptoms follows the hypothesised
pattern: Concurrently, positive fantasies about the future related to fewer
symptoms of depression. However, over periods of 4 weeks to 2 years
positive fantasies predicted comparatively more symptoms of depression.
This pattern of results held for middle-school children and adult students,
for fantasies measured by semi-projective questionnaires and daily-diary
methods, and for various measures of depression (e.g., CDI; Kovacs, 1985;
CES-D; Radloff, 1977; BDI; Beck, Ward, Mendelson, Mock, & Erbaugh,
1961). And importantly, as we predicted, low academic success mediated the
relation between positive fantasies and heightened depressive symptoms.
These results again suggest that positive fantasies may have deleterious
effects on personal accomplishments when they tempt a person into mental
attainment and low engagement.
Positive fantasy: Giving to others
However positive fantasies, while they seem to be hurtful for a person’s own
accomplishments, may be helpful for a person’s generosity towards others in
need or in crisis (e.g., lack of medication or being struck by a hurricane). That
is, they may make people act generously and against their own interests.
Indeed, charity solicitations often encourage people to imagine a positive
future of successfully helping others. H. B. Kappes, Sharma, and Oettingen
(in press) tested the consequences of positive fantasies for giving to others.
However, in three studies we observed that positive fantasies about
successfully giving to a charity left people less willing to give time or money
towards actually helping others, and this was true in particular when helping
demanded valuable resources (e.g., in terms of money or time). This finding
held regardless of whether the crisis was obscure or publicly salient.
Compared to control manipulations (e.g., generating factual descriptions of
crisis resolution or solving a demanding task), positive fantasies about crisis
resolution created the perception that action would be relatively undemand-
ing, and when it came to actual helping, they held off action to resolve the
crisis. Thus positive fantasies—whether they pertain to investing efforts for
one’s own person or for others—seem to have detrimental effects.
Importantly, rather than measuring the predictive power of positive fantasies,
the just-reported results on crisis resolution were obtained by manipulating
positive fantasies, to then compare the effects on giving to relevant other
thoughts (e.g., factual descriptions) or to no relevant thoughts.
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PROCESSES OF POSITIVE FANTASY
In the following, I will describe further experimental work manipulating
positive fantasies as compared to relevant control groups in order to
elucidate how positive fantasies hamper effort and success. Specifically, in
line with the arguments above, we speculated that positive fantasies would
cause mental attainment of the desired future, leading to relaxation and low
energy.
Positive fantasy: Mental attainment
Oettingen and Mayer (2002) hypothesised that positive fantasies depicting a
desired future in an idealised way would lead people to react as though they
had already attained the imagined desired future. Experimental findings
supported these hypotheses through valid indicators of implicit affect (H. B.
Kappes, A. Kappes, & Oettingen, 2012). In one study fantasies pertained to
the topic of neuroenhancing drugs. These are medical—especially psycho-
pharmacological—means for enhancing healthy individuals’ cognitive
functioning. Neuroenhancing drugs have become popular among college
students as they are intended to improve concentration and memory. More
than one in three college students have tried a neuroenhancing drug to
improve their study skills (Talbot, 2009).
We had undergraduate participants generate either positive fantasies that
idealised a future experience of taking a neuroenhancing drug or, in two
control conditions, generate fantasies that either questioned or depreciated
the future experience of taking a neuroenhancer. In a fourth condition
participants did not generate fantasies. Specifically, in the positive-fantasy
condition participants were asked to imagine that they took a neuroenhan-
cer, and to visualise themselves with excellent focus, concentration, and
memory, and how wonderful that would be, while in the questioning- and
negative-fantasy conditions the imagined experiences were either neutral or
negative.
We measured mental attainment via an affective measure, using an
automatic evaluation paradigm (Fazio, Sanbonmatsu, Powell, & Kardes,
1986). People evaluate adjectives more quickly as positive or negative when
these adjectives are immediately preceded by words of similar valence; thus
the relative time taken to evaluate adjectives that follow a particular prime
indicates how the individual automatically evaluates that prime word.
During goal pursuit people automatically evaluate instrumental objects
more positively; that is, in a more approach-friendly way as compared to
people who have completed their goal pursuit. For example, individuals
leaving an assigned task incomplete evaluated task-related words more
positively than when allowed to complete it (i.e., Ferguson & Bargh, 2004).
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Accordingly we hypothesised that engaging in positive fantasies about a
desired future, by feigning completion, would result in comparatively less
positive automatic evaluations of words related to the desired future.
Indeed, when positive fantasies about the idealised experience of taking a
neuroenhancer were induced, these positive fantasies resulted in less positive
automatic evaluations of words related to neuroenhancing drugs, suggesting
the mental attainment of the experience. The findings imply that one reason
why positive fantasies predict low effort and success over time (e.g.,
Oettingen & Mayer, 2002) is that positive fantasies allow people to mentally
attain their desired futures, leaving relatively little motivation for the actual
pursuit of the desired future.
These results are in line with findings showing mental attainment after the
accomplishment of goals. For example, after participants fulfilled the goal of
searching for a specific target stimulus they were less able to access the target
word than they were before the search was completed, and less able than
those in a no-goal control condition; these effects were moderated by the
expectancy and incentive of the goal (Fo
¨rster, Liberman, & Higgins, 2005).
Even observing other people’s completion of a goal to which they felt
committed led to low accessibility of respective goal-related words
(McCulloch, Fitzsimons, Chua, & Albarracin, 2011). Similarly, although
unfulfilled goals interfere with unrelated tasks, when they are fulfilled such
interference effects are eliminated (Masicampo & Baumeister, 2011a).
Finally, these studies on mental attainment of positive fantasies and goal
attainment are now complemented by findings suggesting that advance
planning in the form of implementation intentions (Gollwitzer, 1999) can
curb the cognitive effects of unfulfilled goals, thus freeing cognitive resources
for other pursuits (Masicampo & Baumeister, 2011b).
Positive fantasy: Energisation
Based on the hypothesis that mental attainment would lead to low
motivation, H. B. Kappes and Oettingen (2011) experimentally induced
positive fantasies and analysed their effects on exerted effort as measured by
energisation in four studies. Energy plays a key role in allowing people to
pursue and achieve their desired futures (Brehm & Self, 1989; Klinger, 1975).
In line with classic approaches of motivation, Elliot (2006) argued that: ‘‘a
full account of motivation will attend to both direction and energisation’’ (p.
114). Historically, the concept of energisation arose from Cannon’s (1915)
concept of energy mobilisation, and has been defined as ‘‘the extent to which
the organism as a whole is activated or aroused’’ (Duffy, 1934, p. 194).
Energy can be mobilised by physiological factors such as exercise, as well as
by the anticipated exertion of effort (Wright, Brehm, & Bushman, 1989).
Positive fantasies, by allowing the mental attainment of the desired future,
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should obscure the need for effort in the service of actual attainment
(Oettingen & Mayer, 2002). To test this hypothesis, H. B. Kappes and
Oettingen (2011) conducted three experiments to induce either positive
fantasies or a control condition, and then measured energy by physiological
indicators (Study 1) and by subjective feelings (Studies 2–3). A final
experiment tested whether positive fantasies would be particularly de-
energising when they addressed a currently pressing need (Study 4).
Study 1 examined the effect of positive fantasies on energy as indicated by
systolic blood pressure (SBP, the maximum pressure exerted by the blood
against the vessel walls following a heartbeat; Obrist, 1981; Wright, 1996).
Heightened systolic blood pressure has been found to be a valid indicator
for increased demand for oxygen and nutrients (Brownley, Hurwitz, &
Schneiderman, 2000). As idealised positive fantasies obscure the need to
invest effort, we hypothesised that positive fantasy about a desired future
would lead to low energy as indicated by SBP. Female participants were
induced to positively fantasise about looking good in high-heeled shoes, a
fashion attribute that is associated with being desirable and attractive
(Kaiser, 1996). Participants in the positive-fantasy condition were told to
imagine being glamorous and admired for wearing high heels. As a control
condition, participants were asked whether wearing high-heeled shoes would
actually be so glamorous, thereby preventing participants from mentally
enjoying the desired fantasy of wearing high heels. As dependent variable we
measured the change in participants’ SBP before and after fantasising.
Indeed, participants in the positive-fantasy condition showed decreased
SBP, whereas those in the questioning-fantasy condition sustained their
blood pressure. Study 2 conceptually replicated this effect, but measured
subjective feelings. Participants who had to produce positive fantasies about
success in an essay contest reported feeling less energised than those who
produced negative fantasies.
In Study 3 energisation was measured via subjective feelings and self-
reported accomplishments. Participants who had to generate positive
fantasies about the upcoming week had lower immediate feelings of
energisation than participants who had to merely record their fantasies
about the upcoming week. The immediate feelings of low energisation from
positive fantasies had a sustained impact: They resulted in poor
accomplishment in terms of lower mastery of everyday challenges, as
reported at the end of the week. Importantly, poor accomplishment in
positive-fantasy participants was mediated by feelings of low energisation
right after the experiment.
Finally, Study 4 investigated the importance of context variables.
Specifically, positive fantasy, when pertaining to a pressing need, should
be particularly prone to sap energy. Participants were undergraduate
students at New York University. As the university is highly selective we
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assumed that student participants in general have a relatively high need for
achievement. To silence that need for achievement, in half of the
participants the need for water was induced. Therefore all student
participants were asked to have no food and water for at least 4 hours
prior to coming to the lab. To increase thirst even more we asked all
participants to eat salty crackers (mimicking a taste test). Half of
the participants were then offered as much water as they wanted. For these
participants the need for water was satisfied and thus the need for
achievement could surface again. As predicted, for these participants, who
again were relatively high in need for achievement, induced fantasies about
successfully achieving an A in an important exam led to lowered
energisation (i.e., lowered systolic blood pressure). On the contrary, in
participants who were kept thirsty and thus were still high in need for water,
induced fantasies about the pleasurable experience of having a glass of water
led to being de-energised. In short, the effect of positive fantasy on low
energy depended on need state; positive fantasies decreased energy when
they pertained to a currently pressing need.
Across all four studies we tried to rule out alternative explanations. For
example, we controlled for the possibility that positive fantasies are easier to
generate than questioning or negative fantasies. We also excluded the
possibility that questioning or negative fantasies per se are more irritating
than positive fantasies. Finally we included a neutral fantasy condition that
allowed us to conclude that positive fantasies were de-energising, while
negative fantasies were energising.
Are there any benefits from being relaxed and de-energised via positive
fantasies? Jerome Singer (1975) has suggested that positive fantasies help
people to patiently wait and endure meaninglessness. For example, when
resources such as food and water are scarce, positive fantasies may help to
calmly endure hunger and thirst. Similarly, if upcoming tasks such as exams
or interviews evoke anxiety, indulging in positive fantasies about desired
outcomes is a way to reduce this unwanted anxiety. However, in the long
run, instead of promoting effort and achievement, positive fantasies will sap
people’s energy to make the necessary efforts towards attaining their desired
future. Fantasies that are less positive—that question whether an ideal
future can be achieved, and that depict obstacles, problems, and setbacks—
are more beneficial for mustering the energy needed to obtain success.
The energy-sapping effects of positive fantasies need to be differentiated
from the energy-depleting effects of self-control. As postulated in the limited
energy model (Muraven & Baumeister, 2000), self-control relies on limited
energy, and therefore engaging in self-control behaviour will hamper
subsequent self-control performance. Supporting these ideas, glucose
replenishes depleted energy after self-control attempts (Gailliot et al.,
2007). The present work, rather than focusing on depletion of needed
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energy, assumes that by leading to mental attainment positive fantasies
obscure the need for energy. That is, positive fantasies suggest there is no
need for energy as the desired future—supposedly—has already been
attained.
Importantly, we found that aroused needs augment the de-energising
effects of positive fantasies. These findings are in line with classic motivation
research, which indicates that needs influence the content of people’s
thoughts and mental images (McClelland, Clark, Roby, & Atkinson, 1949).
For example, as hunger increases, people are more likely to generate stories
where food is the central theme and where the need for food is mentioned
(Atkinson & McClelland, 1948). Consequently, when needs cannot be
satisfied in actuality (such as when thirsty people are not given an
opportunity to obtain water), satisfying them in fantasy may serve
eventually to satisfy the actual needs by decreasing arousal so that one
can focus on problem solving. Positive fantasies originating from unsatisfied
needs may also guarantee that the task of satisfying the needs stays in the
focus of attention and thus eventually gets completed (James, 1890).
ORIGINS OF POSITIVE FANTASY
According to these considerations needs should spur fantasies that are
experienced as particularly positive. Indeed, H. B. Kappes, Schwo
¨rer, and
Oettingen (in press) identified need states as promoting positive fantasies
about relevant stimuli (i.e., those that could address the need). In three
studies we aroused several different need states, both physiological (e.g., for
water, Study 2) and psychological (e.g., for meaning in job seekers or for
relatedness in elderly people, Studies 1 and 3). In a correlational study we
aroused the need for power (Study 4).
For example, in Study 3 we aroused the need for affiliation or relatedness
(Baumeister & Leary, 1995; Deci & Ryan, 2004; Murray, 1938). Optimising
such relatedness to close significant others is particularly important as
people age (Carstensen, Isaacowitz, & Charles, 1999), so we addressed a
sample of older adults. We aroused the need for relatedness by asking
participants to list 12 recent examples of ‘‘close contact with others who care
about you’’; control participants had to list 4 such examples. Participants
who had the difficult experience of listing 12 examples should feel that they
actually lack close contact with caring others, arousing the need for
relatedness (e.g., Sanna & Schwarz, 2003). We measured both need-relevant
and irrelevant fantasies for all participants. Relevant fantasies were elicited
by having participants fantasise the ending to scenarios such as ‘‘You are on
your way to a store when you suddenly recognise one of your close friends.
You go over to the friend and . . .’’ Irrelevant fantasies were elicited by
having participants fantasise the ending of similar scenarios without
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mention of close friends. After writing down their thoughts and images,
participants rated them for positivity and negativity. We hypothesised and
observed that participants with an aroused need for relatedness generated
more positive fantasies in the relevant scenario than the irrelevant scenario;
the same difference did not emerge for control participants.
SUMMARY
Positive future thought may take the form of expectations versus free
thoughts or fantasies. In line with the literature on efficacy and control
beliefs, expectations of being able to attain a successful future predict high
effort and successful performance. By contrast, fantasies about attaining a
positive future predict low effort and little success. But positive fantasies do
not only hurt effort and performance. They also predict impaired mental
health: Low effort and little success translate into more depressive symptoms
over time. I have described correlational and experimental research
supporting these ideas as well as several cognitive and motivational
processes (both implicit and explicit) responsible for the detrimental effects
of positive fantasies. Specifically, positive fantasies seduce people to
prematurely attain and consume their desired future. In addition they lead
to relaxation and low energy, which in turn predict a lack of effort and
success in attaining the desired future. Altogether, the presented research
indicates a clear warning to the self-help literature and the coaching
industry: When it comes to positive thinking in the form of free thoughts
and images about the future, the industry’s recipe of ‘‘Think Positive!’’ will
not help. In fact, it may even hurt people in fulfilling their developmental
tasks as well as in fostering their mental health.
FANTASY REALISATION THEORY
If, as in the studies reported above, fantasies are problematic for effort and
action, the question becomes what can be done with these thoughts to make
them relevant for effort and behaviour change? What needs to be done to
these fantasies to turn them into strong goal pursuits (i.e., goal commitment
and goal striving)? Various mental strategies related to one’s wishes and
fantasies may impact goal commitments. The theory of fantasy realisation
specifies four such self-regulation strategies (Oettingen, 2000): mental
contrasting, indulging, dwelling, and reverse contrasting (Figure 1). In
mental contrasting people first imagine the fulfilment of a fantasy (e.g.,
giving a good presentation at a conference) and then reflect on the present
reality that stands in the way of attaining the desired future (e.g., evaluation
anxiety). Mental contrasting is a problem-solving strategy based on
imagining both future and reality that makes people recognise that they
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have not fulfilled their wish yet, and that they need to take action in the
present reality in order to achieve the desired future. Specifically, they need
to overcome or circumvent the aspect (obstacle) of present reality that
stands in the way of fantasy realisation. As a consequence, expectations of
attaining the desired future become activated and determine a person’s goal
commitment and subsequent cognitive, emotional, and behavioural striving
to attain the desired future. When expectations of success are high, people
will actively commit to and realise the desired future. When expectations of
success are low, people will actively refrain from doing so, and thus they will
pursue alternative wishes and desired futures. In this way mental contrasting
helps people discriminate between pursuing feasible and unfeasible goals.
The theory of fantasy realisation specifies three other self-regulation
strategies of goal commitment and performance. People may engage either
in indulging (envisioning only the wished for future), in dwelling (reflecting
only on the present reality), or in reverse contrasting (reflecting on the
present reality and then envisioning the desired future). Indulging and
dwelling do not produce any discrepancy between future and reality, and
thus the individual fails to recognise that actions are necessary to achieve the
desired future. Therefore expectations of success do not become activated,
and goal commitment and performance do not reflect the perceived
likelihood of reaching the desired future. In reverse contrasting the future
does not serve as an anchor of present reality: Unlike in mental contrasting,
a relational construct of reality standing in the way of the desired future is
not activated. Therefore expectations should not guide goal commitment.
That is, individuals who indulge, dwell, or reverse contrast should show an
unchanged, moderate level of goal commitment and performance: they do
Figure 1. Mode of self-regulatory thought.
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not fully commit when they have high expectations of success, and they do
not actively let go when they have low expectations of success. For example,
when it comes to the goal of giving a good presentation at a conference, an
indulging, dwelling, or reverse-contrasting person will show moderate
preparation and performance, regardless of whether a successful perfor-
mance is perceived as within one’s reach or as hardly possible.
MENTAL CONTRASTING AND PERFORMANCE
To test these hypotheses, one study (Oettingen, Pak, & Schnetter, 2001,
Study 3), had college students name their most important interpersonal wish
or concern and indicate their expectations about whether their wish or
concern would have a happy ending. For example, participants named ‘‘to
get to know someone I like’’, ‘‘to solve a conflict with my partner’’, or ‘‘to
improve the relationship with my mother’’. All participants then had to list
four aspects of their desired future and four aspects of present reality that
stand in the way of fantasy realisation. We then established four conditions.
In the mental-contrasting condition students had to alternate in their mental
elaborations between one future aspect and one reality aspect, beginning
with a future aspect. In the other conditions students had to mentally
elaborate four future aspects (indulging), or four reality aspects (dwelling),
or else participants alternated between future and reality aspects beginning
with a reality aspect (reverse contrasting).
Directly following these mental exercises, all participants reported their
feelings of energisation with respect to solving their interpersonal concern.
Two weeks later, to assess the behavioural consequences of commitment,
we asked participants to indicate the two most difficult steps they had
undertaken to solve their interpersonal concern, and to report the exact
date they had performed these steps. The difference in days between the
date of participation in the experiment and the date participants reported
to have taken the steps determined the immediacy of fantasy realisation.
Note that the present concept of commitment does not denote the act of
having made a decision, as commitment is defined in the work by Eric
Klinger (1977; Wicklund & Brehm, 1976). Rather, it specifies the degree of
determination to implement a set goal. According to Locke and Latham
(1990, 2002), goal commitment is most validly measured by its behavioural
consequences such as effortful behaviour and level of performance.
Mental-contrasting participants felt energised and behaved in line with
their expectations of success more than indulging, dwelling, and reverse-
contrasting participants (see Figure 2). High-expectancy participants in the
mental-contrasting condition felt most energised and started right after the
experiment to solve their interpersonal concern, while low-expectancy
participants felt least energised and delayed their steps towards fantasy
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realisation over the period of the study. On the contrary, indulging and
dwelling participants felt moderately energised and started fantasy realisa-
tion after about a week, independently of whether they expected to solve the
concern or not. Participants in the reverse-contrasting condition (who first
mentally elaborated the negative reality and only then the positive future)
showed the same pattern of results as participants in the indulging and
dwelling conditions. The latter finding implies that the relational construct
of reality standing in the way of the desired future needs to be activated for
mental contrast effects to occur.
Importantly, the pattern of results was not attributable to differential
effects of the manipulation on level of expectations. We found an almost
perfect correlation between participants’ expectations of success measured
before and after the experiment. This finding implies that mental contrasting
fosters fantasy realisation by making high expectations of success relevant
for goal commitment rather than by changing the level of expectations of
success (see also Oettingen, Mayer, Thorpe, Janetzke, & Lorenz, 2005;
Oettingen, Mayer, & Thorpe, 2010).
Another experiment using the same procedure replicated the results with
respect to cognitive indicators of goal commitment (Oettingen et al., 2001,
Figure 2. Regression lines depicting the link of expectation of success to feeling energised (left)
and to immediacy of action (right) as a function of self-regulatory thought. From ‘‘Self-
regulation of goal setting: Turning free fantasies about the future into binding goals (Study 3)’’,
by G. Oettingen, H. Pak, & K. Schnetter (2001). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,
80, 736–753. Copyright 2001 by the American Psychological Association, Inc. Reprinted with
permission.
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Study 1). Specifically, we measured the extent to which participants formed
plans to realise their fantasies. Immediately following the experiment all
participants were confronted with eight sentence stems presented in random
order: Four sentence stems suggested the formulation of plans (e.g., If . . . ,
then I will . . .), and four did not require the formulation of plans (e.g., In
principle, I will . . .). Participants were supposed to complete those four out
of the eight sentence stems that best matched how they were thinking about
their interpersonal concern. We counted the number of sentence stems
leading to the formulation of plans and observed the predicted expectancy-
dependency in the mental-contrasting condition, but not in the indulging
and dwelling conditions.
In a third study we measured goal commitment by other-rated actual
behaviour (Oettingen et al., 2001, Study 4). First-year students enrolled in a
vocational school for computer programming indicated their expectations of
excelling in mathematics. Next, they named aspects that they associated with
excelling in mathematics (e.g., feelings of pride, increasing job prospects)
and aspects of present reality, or potential obstacles (e.g., being distracted by
peers or feeling lazy). As in the previous studies, in the mental-contrasting
condition participants had to elaborate in writing two aspects of the desired
future and two aspects of present reality, in alternating order beginning with
an aspect of the desired future. Participants in the indulging condition were
asked to elaborate four aspects of the desired future only; in the dwelling
condition they were asked instead to elaborate four aspects of the present
reality only. As dependent variable, participants indicated how energised
they felt with respect to excelling in maths (e.g., how active, eventful,
energetic). More importantly, 2 weeks after the experiment participants’
teachers, blind to condition, reported how much effort each student had
invested over the interim and provided each student with a course grade for
that time period. As predicted, only in the mental-contrasting condition did
the students feel energised, exert effort, and earn grades based on their
expectations of success. Those with high expectations of success felt the most
energised, invested the most effort, and received the highest course grades;
those with low expectations of success felt the least energised, invested the
least effort, and received the lowest course grades. On the contrary,
participants in both the indulging and dwelling conditions felt moderately
energised, exerted moderate effort, and received medium grades independent
of their expectations of success.
Thus mental contrasting led students to invest in their vocational
education when learning and success appeared feasible, but it led students to
let go when learning and success was not perceived as feasible. Such letting
go or goal disengagement is advantageous whenever alternative goals are
available (Wrosch, Miller, Scheier, & Brun de Pontet, 2007; Wrosch,
Scheier, Miller, Schulz, & Carver, 2003). To guarantee the availability of
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alternative routes, in the study described above (Oettingen et al., 2001,
Study 4) we chose first-year vocational students as participants. These
students had just started their vocational education and thus had alternative
career paths still at their disposal. That is, they potentially could switch to
alternative, better-suited careers (than computer programming).
Alternatives are less advisable or feasible in other cases, however: For
example, elementary and middle-school students need to wholeheartedly
embrace their academic goals in order to fulfil their developmental tasks (e.g.,
to learn basic mathematics and language; Havighurst, 1948/1972); here
disengagement or postponement may be detrimental. In such cases, mental
contrasting can be used to help people to fully commit to a given goal pursuit.
For example, one may strengthen existing expectations of success by
providing positive situated feedback. Or one may ask people to apply mental
contrasting to idiosyncratic wishes that are deemed feasible (e.g., losing three
pounds of weight; being friendly to one’s neighbour). Finally, in a group
context where performance in solving standardised tasks is aimed for,
educators or leaders may provide novel tasks that can potentially be solved
by all members of the group. All three approaches—strengthening
expectations of success, asking for idiosyncratic feasible wishes, and
providing feasible tasks—turn mental contrasting into a promoter of keen
goal pursuit, which is a wise route to take when disengagement is not a viable
option (e.g., A. Gollwitzer, Oettingen, Kirby, Duckworth, & Mayer, 2011;
Johannessen, Mayer, & Oettingen, in press; Oettingen, Marquardt, &
Gollwitzer, in press; see below for details). In sum, mental contrasting can be
used to help people select between feasible and unfeasible futures, but it can
also be used to help people to wholeheartedly pursue a feasible desired future.
Mental contrasting: Range of performance effects
Mental-contrasting effects have been observed in a wide variety of domains
and regarding diverse subject matter: for example, getting to know an
attractive stranger and finding a balance between work and family life
(Oettingen, 2000), studying abroad and acquiring a second language
(Oettingen, Ho
¨nig, & Gollwitzer, 2000; Oettingen et al., 2001; Oettingen
et al., 2005; Oettingen et al., 2009), pursuing self-improvement goals and
increasing tolerance (Oettingen et al., 2005), and reducing or stopping
cigarette consumption (Oettingen, Mayer, & Thorpe, 2010). Thus mental
contrasting qualifies as a content-free strategy of regulating goal pursuit
(commitment and performance) that applies to a wide array of life domains.
It even regulates responses to negative performance feedback as measured
by processing relevant information, sheltering subjective competence as well
as instilling optimistic attributional patterns (A. Kappes, Oettingen, & Pak,
in press).
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Mental-contrasting research assessed the strength of goal commitment by
cognitive (e.g., making plans), affective (e.g., feelings of disappointment,
feelings of energisation), and behavioural (e.g., amount of effort, financial
investment) indicators. These indicators were measured via self-report or
observations, either directly after the experiment or weeks later. Mental
contrasting turned out to be an easy-to-apply self-regulatory tool that is
applicable to participants across age. The described effects were obtained for
school children, and even when children or adult participants elaborated the
future and the reality only very briefly (i.e., were asked to imagine only one
aspect of the desired future and one aspect of present reality; Oettingen
et al., 2000, Study 1; A. Kappes & Oettingen, 2012, Studies 1 and 2; A.
Kappes, Singmann, & Oettingen, in press).
It is important to note that in none of these studies did the outcomes of
mental contrasting occur as a result of changes in the level of expectations
(feasibility) or incentive valence (desirability), but rather as a result of the
mode of self-regulatory thought (i.e., mental contrasting, indulging,
dwelling, or reverse contrasting), with mental contrasting aligning strength
of goal commitment and performance to expectations. We found almost
perfect correlations between participants’ expectations and incentive value
measured before and after the manipulations of self-regulatory thought. In
addition, induced mode of self-regulatory thought did not differentially
change the levels of expectations and incentive value (e.g., Oettingen et al.,
2005, 2010).
Furthermore, as noted above, for mental-contrasting effects to occur,
people need to first elaborate the desired future and only then reflect on the
present reality. Only when the desired future is elaborated first can it be
taken as the reference point against which the present reality is considered as
a potential obstacle (e.g., a party is considered a potential obstacle to getting
an A in the exam). The reverse order (reverse contrasting) fails to depict the
reality as potentially standing in the way of the future. Whether the obstacle
of reality is then endorsed as an obstacle that can be overcome by respective
instrumental means will depend on the expectations of success: When
expectations are high people will endorse the reality as an obstacle to
realising the desired future and thus connect it to relevant instrumental
means. When expectations of success are low people will dismiss the reality
as an obstacle disconnecting it from respective means; now people will again
be open to new endeavours (e.g., party is seen as a fun event).
In sum, the reported pattern of results, seen as a whole, shows that
mental contrasting is a mode of thought or strategy that people can use to
wisely regulate their goal pursuit. First, it helps people to build strong
commitments to feasible, desired future outcomes (i.e., those with high
expectations of success). However, equally important, mental contrasting
also fosters active disengagement from unfeasible desired future outcomes
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(i.e., those with low expectations of success). Through this disengagement,
mental contrasting allows people to pursue alternative, more promising
endeavours and to start searching for new goals.
Mental contrasting: Helping relations
Recent research suggests that mental contrasting not only regulates goal
engagement and goal disengagement, but also promotes the choice of
suitable means for effective goal striving. Oettingen, Stephens, Mayer, and
Brinkmann (2010) examined the mental-contrasting effects on seeking and
giving help as a means to an end. Specifically, in Study 1 college students
indicated their expectations of successfully seeking academic help from a
person where help-seeking is perceived as a challenge. They were then asked
to name aspects of successfully seeking academic help from this person as
well as obstacles of present reality standing in the way of asking the person
for help. In the mental-contrasting condition, participants alternated in
elaborating the future and the reality, starting with the future, while in the
indulging condition and the dwelling conditions they only elaborated the
future or the reality, respectively. Two weeks after the experiment all
participants indicated to what extent their academic problems had been
solved through the help of the person they had named. Mental contrasting
about successfully seeking academic help led to expectancy-dependent
attainment of help more often than indulging and dwelling.
In Study 2, critical care paediatric nurses were induced to mentally
contrast, indulge, or dwell—this time about successful help-giving to
patients’ relatives. Again, mental contrasting led to expectancy-dependent
commitment to giving help more often than the two control conditions.
Thus, in addition to regulating commitment to goals, mental contrasting
regulates the commitment to use appropriate means to achieve those goals.
These findings also attest to mental contrasting as a strategy to strengthen
prosocial behaviour (helping others). The findings relate to work by
Bagozzi, Dholakia, and Basuroy (2003), who distinguish between goal
desires (directed at end states) and implementation desires (directed at
means to the chosen end states). Our findings imply that mental contrasting
may regulate both goal desires and implementation desires.
One needs to keep in mind, however, that mental contrasting creates goal
commitments in line with a person’s expectations of success, implying that
when expectations are low people will disengage from goal pursuit. However,
as noted above, when disengagement is not advisable or feasible, it is
important that high expectations of success are put in place before people are
asked to engage in mental contrasting. To assure this prerequisite, one may
simply induce high expectations of success by giving positive situated
feedback in the critical performance domain (Oettingen et al., in press).
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Mental contrasting turns positive feedback into goal
commitment
In two studies employing a creativity test (i.e., solving insight problems;
Dow & Mayer, 2004), Oettingen et al. (2011) tested whether mental
contrasting after positive feedback would translate into strong goal
commitment as inferred from enhancing creative performance. Participants
received positive or moderate bogus feedback on their creative potential and
thus arrived at either high or moderate expectations regarding their creative
potential (which was said to be relevant for taking an upcoming creativity
test). They then engaged either in mental contrasting about succeeding on
the upcoming creativity test, in indulging, in dwelling, or in irrelevant
contrasting (i.e., elaborating aspects of a picture). We based our hypotheses
on the dual pathway to creativity model (DPCM; De Dreu, Baas, & Nijstad,
2008) postulating that creative performance depends on both flexible
processing of information and perseverance. As mental contrasting fosters
both flexible processing of information and persistence, we reasoned that it
should enhance creative performance. As outlined above, even though the
predictions of fantasy realisation theory pertain to all aspects of goal
commitment (i.e., cognitive, affective, motivational, and behavioural), in the
present study we focused on the behavioural consequences. Behavioural
consequences such as performance on tests are considered the most valid
measure of goal commitment (Locke, Latham, & Erez, 1988).
Unlike indulging, dwelling, or irrelevant contrasting, mental contrasting
produced better performance on the creativity test after positive feedback
than after moderate feedback. Thus only mental-contrasting participants
benefited from situational positive feedback directed at their creative
potential. By manipulating rather than only measuring expectations of
succes, the present research adjusts for confounding variables and validates
previous findings: Mental contrasting does actually cause expectancy-
dependent goal commitments (performance). It also points to a technique
that helps to reap the benefits of ad hoc one-time positive feedback about a
person’s potential. We observed that mental contrasting of future and
reality—rather than indulging, dwelling, or irrelevant contrasting—can turn
such positive feedback into strong performance.
Mental contrasting of negative future fantasies: Approach
and avoidance of a feared future
So far we have reported findings about mental contrasting of a positive
desired future with a negative present reality. However, mental contrasting
does not have to pertain to the attainment of a positive desired future;
people can also fantasise about a negative future and contrast fantasies
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about a negative feared future with reflections on the positive present reality.
Oettingen et al. (2005) observed in a group of xenophobic high school
students that fantasies about a feared future (e.g., foreign youth moving into
the neighbourhood), contrasted with obstacles of a positive reality standing
in the way of the feared future (e.g., reports about exciting soccer matches
with foreign youth), produced more expectancy-dependent goal commit-
ment to approach the feared future than only fantasising about the feared
future or only reflecting on the positive reality. Commitment was measured
by participants’ tolerance and willingness to invest time and effort in
welcoming the foreigners into their neighbourhood. Thus mental contrast-
ing can be used to create approach goals that make people successfully
conquer a feared future.
Importantly, mental contrasting of a negative feared future can also be
used to create avoidance goals that help people evade the feared future
(Oettingen, Mayer, & Thorpe, 2010). In a study with chronic cigarette
smokers, commitment to the goal of avoiding the feared consequences of
smoking can be facilitated by mentally contrasting the future of negative
health consequences with the current positive reality of still having a healthy
body. This study contained six conditions: Mental contrasting of the
negative future of suffering from continued smoking, mental contrasting of
the positive future of enjoying the reduction of smoking, and for each
mental contrasting condition one relevant indulging and one relevant
dwelling group.
All participants first had to indicate their expectations and perceived
incentive value for reducing their cigarette consumption. Participants in the
positive-future conditions then had to list four positive aspects of reducing
their consumption (e.g., they named not having yellow fingers, being fitter),
and four negative aspects of present reality standing in the way (e.g., being
bored, partying). We then established the positive-future mental-contrast-
ing, indulging, and dwelling conditions as described before. In the negative-
future conditions, on the contrary, participants were asked to list four
negative aspects that they associated with a future of continued smoking
(e.g., developing lung cancer, being a bad model for children), and four
positive aspects of reality that they could lose due to continued smoking
(e.g., having healthy lungs or pretty skin). We then established the three
experimental groups: In the negative-future mental-contrasting condition,
participants had to mentally elaborate two negative aspects of the future of
continued smoking and two positive aspects of the endangered reality that
they could lose due to unmodified smoking, in alternating order, beginning
with a negative aspect of the future. In the indulging in the negative future
and dwelling on the positive reality conditions, participants fantasised about
four negative aspects of the undesired future and four positive aspects of the
present endangered reality.
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When measuring immediacy of action towards reducing cigarette
consumption, we observed expectancy-dependence in both mental-contrast-
ing conditions, but no expectancy-dependence in the other conditions. That
is, regardless of whether a desired or undesired future is imagined, once
future fantasies are contrasted with the respective reality (i.e., whether the
relational construct of standing in the way or the relational construct of
endangered, respectively,is activated) expectancy-dependent commitment
ensued. Mental contrasting of a desired and feasible future led to approach
goals; mental contrasting of an undesired and avoidable future led to
avoidance goals (for approach versus avoidance goals, see Thrash & Hurst,
2009; for promotion versus prevention goals, see Higgins, 1997). The latter
finding is welcome news for people who are plagued by self-regulation
concerns that discourage fantasies about a positive future. For example,
people who adhere to self-damaging behaviour (e.g., excessive alcohol
consumption) might not readily generate fantasies about a positive future of
reducing their alcohol consumption. Accordingly, fantasies about a negative
future should benefit those who have trouble to generate respective positive
future fantasies, but still want to abstain from such bad habits.
COGNITIVE AND MOTIVATIONAL PROCESSES OF
MENTAL CONTRASTING
The described experiments focused on commitment and performance
outcomes caused by the four modes of self-regulatory thought: mental
contrasting, indulging, dwelling, and reverse contrasting. They showed that
mental contrasting rather than the other modes of thought produce
selective, expectancy-dependent goal commitment with subsequent goal
striving and goal attainment. Interestingly, no-treatment control conditions
also led to commitment that was independent of expectations just like
indulging, dwelling, and reverse contrasting (e.g., Oettingen, 2000; A.
Kappes & Oettingen, 2012; A. Kappes, Singmann, et al., in press).
Apparently, mental contrasting heightens or lowers goal commitment and
performance depending on expectations of success, while indulging, dwell-
ing, and reverse contrasting leave goal commitment and performance
unchanged. In other words, mental contrasting is a mode of thought that
affects behaviour change, while the other modes of thought preserve stability
(for the reciprocal influences of cultural factors and self-regulatory strategies
of change versus stability, see Oettingen, 1997).
Missing from our discussion so far is the empirical analysis of how mental
contrasting works. One may think that changes in feasibility (expectations)
or desirability (incentive value) might qualify as mediators, but as described
above these variables were never found to be affected by mental contrasting.
Rather, as the studies reported in the following section will show, mental
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contrasting produces changes in implicit cognition and in energisation,
which in turn predict selective goal pursuit and behaviour change. The final
study of this upcoming section provides neurological data on the cognitive
processes recruited by the mental contrasting exercise itself. The neurolo-
gical data imply that mental contrasting is a cognitively demanding mental
exercise of problem solving.
Cognitive processes: Strength of association between future
and reality
As for cognitive processes, mental contrasting should modulate the strength
of the association between future and reality and between reality and
instrumental means in an expectancy-dependent way. In a series of four
studies employing a primed lexical decision task (Neely, 1977) to measure
the strength of association between future and reality, A. Kappes and
Oettingen (2012) hypothesised that when expectations of successfully
reaching a desired future are high, mental contrasting will strengthen the
association between the desired future and the reality; when expectations are
low, mental contrasting will weaken the future-reality association.
We reasoned that mental contrasting can be understood as a cognitive
procedure similar to propositional learning, where the endorsement or nega-
tion of propositions affects associations between mental concepts. The crea-
tion of such associations takes place in two steps (Gawronski & Bodenhausen,
2006; Lagnado, Waldmann, Hagmayer, & Sloman, 2007; Waldman &
Hagmayer, 2001). First, a preliminary proposition between two mental rep-
resentations is generated (Lagnado et al., 2007). Second, reasoning processes
evaluate the validity of this proposition by assessing its consistency with
relevant knowledge. The extent of endorsement or negation of the proposition
changes the strength of the resulting association (De Houwer, 2009).
Applying these ideas to mental contrasting suggests that (1) mental
contrasting creates the preliminary proposition that the desired future can
be reached by overcoming the present reality, and (2) that this proposition
needs to be tested for its validity. Expectations of success, then, provide the
necessary information for testing the validity: When they are high this
proposition will be endorsed, when low the proposition will be negated.
Hence, only when expectations are high should people confirm the
proposition that the obstacles of reality towards the desired future can be
overcome, resulting in strong associations between future and reality. The
results of such expectancy-dependent reasoning processes should then be
observable in associative memory, resulting in either strong associations
between future and reality when the proposition is endorsed (high
expectations of success) or in weak associations when the proposition is
rejected (low expectations of success).
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Order plays an important role in propositional learning. For example,
when pressing a button turns on a device one might suspect causality,
whereas when the order is reversed one would not (Lagnado et al. 2007).
Similarly we predicted that order plays a role when thinking about the
desired future and the present reality. Contrary to mental contrasting, where
the obstacle of reality is elaborated after the desired future, in reverse
contrasting people start with thinking about the obstacle of reality and then
turn to the desired future; hence they do not think about the reality in the
context of the desired future. Therefore reverse contrasting should only lead
to thinking about the reality per se. For example, a student thinking about
being invited to a party, and only then thinking about reaching an A in the
upcoming exam might imagine what to bring as a gift to the party, instead of
how to decline the invitation. That is, the reality is not perceived as standing
in the way of the desired future—the invitation to the party is not deemed an
obstacle to attaining an A. Hence the future (A in exam) and the obstacle
(invitation to the party) should not be linked, thus leaving the association
between desired future and obstacle of reality untouched. The strength of
association between getting an A and party would neither be strengthened
nor weakened (when expectations are high or low, respectively).
In one study (A. Kappes & Oettingen, 2012, Study 2) using an acute stress
paradigm (videotaped public speaking), the participants’ task was to give a
presentation in front of a camera about their professional skills, which
would then be evaluated by human resource experts. Participants indicated
their expectations of success and generated a future aspect of doing well in
the talk as well as an aspect of reality standing in their way, summarising
each aspect in one word. Thereafter we established three experimental
conditions: a mental-contrasting condition, a reverse-contrasting condition,
and an irrelevant-content control condition (engaging in positive and
negative thoughts and images about a meeting with a supervisor).
To measure the strength of association between future and reality,
between reality and future, and—for adjusting—the accessibility of future
and reality, we used a primed lexical decision task (Neely, 1977). We
measured the strength of the association between future and reality through
participants’ mean reaction times on trials using their idiosyncratic future
word as prime and their idiosyncratic reality word as target. To test whether
mental-contrasting effects are directed, we also measured the strength of the
association between reality and future through participants’ mean reaction
times on trials with their reality word as prime and their future word as
target. Finally, to adjust for mere accessibility effects, we primed
participants’ idiosyncratic future and reality words by neutral stimuli
(single strings of Xs).
Specifically, students learned that in an upcoming lexical decision task we
would use the words they previously named (i.e., future and reality words)
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among others. They had to indicate as quickly as possible whether each item
presented on the screen (i.e., the primed target word) was a word or a
nonword by pressing one of two labelled keys. Each experimental trial
started with the presentation of a fixation cross followed by the presentation
of a prime (presented for 50 ms) which was backward masked to prevent
participants from consciously seeing the prime. Finally the target word
appeared on the screen. The strength of the association between future and
reality was indexed by participants’ mean reaction times on four trials
comprising the future word as prime and the reality word as target; the
strength of the association between reality and future was indexed by
participants’ mean reaction times on four trials comprising the reality word
as prime and the future word as target; the accessibility of the future and
reality was measured by priming participants with a string of Xs, and then
providing either the future word or the reality word as target (eight trials).
Finally, 48 filler trials containing neutral words as primes and as targets
(e.g., umbrella, noon) and 64 nonword trials were included. Thus the
complete lexical decision task comprised 128 trials: Half were real word
trials of which one-fourth were critical trials. After finishing the lexical
decision task participants gave their presentations in front of a camera,
explaining what qualified them as ideal job candidates (see also Oettingen
et al., 2009, Study 1).
Unlike the reverse-contrasting and irrelevant-content control conditions,
the mental-contrasting condition led to future–reality associations as well as
performance (as assessed by two independent raters blind to condition and
hypotheses) in line with participants’ expectations of success. These results
prevailed even when we adjusted for the accessibility of future and reality.
However, we did not find differential effects of the conditions on reality–
future associations, indicating that mental-contrasting effects are directed
from future to reality. Importantly, future–reality associations mediated the
effects of expectations on goal commitment in the mental-contrasting
condition. That is, when expectations of success were high, mental
contrasting led to strong future–reality associations, which in turn predicted
strong performance; when expectations of success were low, mental
contrasting inhibited future–reality associations, which in turn predicted
weak performance.
A. Kappes and Oettingen (2012) replicated these results across a variety
of experimental methods: whether expectations were measured or manipu-
lated, whether indicators of commitment were affective and self-reported
(e.g., feelings of responsibility, Study 1) or behavioural and other-rated (e.g.,
solving a creativity test, Study 3). Finally, mental-contrasting effects on
future–reality associations did vanish when participants were informed that
the goal was achieved, implying that future–reality associations wax and
wane with ongoing versus completed goal pursuit (Study 4). Thus the
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present results are in line with research reported above, showing that goal
completion dissolves the cognitive, affective, and behavioural effects of goal
striving (Fo
¨rster et al., 2005; McCulloch et al., 2011; Masicampo &
Baumeister, 2011a).
Cognitive processes: Strength of association between reality
and instrumental means
Mental contrasting not only links future and reality, it also connects present
reality to relevant instrumental means (i.e., means to overcome or circumvent
the present reality to attain the desired future). In two studies that use
similar designs and procedures as above, A. Kappes, Singmann, and
Oettingen (in press) showed that mental contrasting paired with high
expectations of success strengthened associations between present reality
and instrumental behaviour; however it weakened reality–behaviour
associations when paired with low expectations of success. Importantly,
analogous to the results on mental contrasting and strength of future–reality
associations, the strength of the reality–behaviour associations mediated
goal commitment as indicated by actual performance (e.g., taking the stairs
instead of the lift to achieve the goal of getting physically fit).
Cognitive processes: Obstacle perception
These findings suggest that mental contrasting with high expectations of
success should lead people to identify aspects of reality as obstacles to
reaching the desired future—as high expectations imply that obstacles are
surmountable by the available instrumental means. For example, mental
contrasting should lead an ambitious student with high expectations to
identify the weekend party as an obstacle to attaining an A. Conversely,
mental contrasting with low expectations should lead people to refrain from
taking on aspects of reality as obstacles, as low expectations reflect that
obstacles cannot be surmounted by the available means. In the example
above, the student who expects to fail the exam anyway will dismiss the
party as an obstacle. Such dismissal might free the students for alternative
opportunities (e.g., to enjoy the party).
In one experiment where mental contrasting pertained to being accepted
at a desired graduate school, A. Kappes, Wendt, Reinelt, and Oettingen
(2012) tested this idea by assessing whether mental contrasting paired with
high expectations leads to identifying a relevant reality aspect as an obstacle
standing in the way of the desired future, and whether mental contrasting
paired with low expectations diminishes such obstacle identification. We
used a task-switching paradigm (for a review see Kiesel et al., 2010) to
identify implicit obstacle categorisation.
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One study (Study 2) was said to deal with undergraduates’ thoughts
regarding graduate school. Students indicated their expectation of being
accepted at their favourite graduate school, listed one aspect of being
accepted and one aspect of reality standing in the way (students named, e.g.,
high stress, high tuition) as well as one aspect that would aid them to get
into their favourite graduate school (students named, e.g., studying hard,
being determined). They then had to summarise the reality aspect in one
word (e.g., stress, tuition), as they also had to do for the aid-related aspect
(e.g., studying, determination). We then established a mental-contrasting
condition, a reverse-contrasting condition, and an irrelevant-content control
condition in the same way as described for the previous studies.
Moving to the task-switching categorisation task, in 40 learning trials
students first had to indicate whether a presented stimulus was an obstacle-
related word or an aid-related word (categorisation task), or whether it was
printed in yellow or blue (colour identification task) by pressing one of two
response keys, each of which was associated with both a word category and a
colour. Specifically, students had to press the left key when the presented
word was either printed in yellow (i.e., on colour-naming trials) or was aid-
related (i.e., on categorisation trials). Contrary, students had to press the
right key when the presented word was either printed in blue (i.e., on colour-
naming trials) or was obstacle-related (i.e., on categorisation trials). We then
tested the compatibility effect. The compatibility effect (Meiran, 1996;
Rogers & Monsell, 1995) implies that incompatible stimuli (colour and cate-
gory suggest different button-press responses) in comparison to compatible
stimuli (colour and category suggest same button-press responses) reliably
worsen performance in terms of reaction times and errors. In our study, we
assessed implicit categorisation of idiosyncratic reality words as obstacles, by
looking at the compatibility effect they evoked when presented in the colour
identification task. Regarding the reality word we therefore subtracted
reaction times and errors on congruent trials from reaction times and errors
on incongruent trials. Hence higher scores indicated a stronger implicit
categorisation of the idiosyncratic reality word as an obstacle. Even though
compatibility effects are usually also found on task-repetition trials, they are
more pronounced on task-switching trials (Meiran, 1996). Accordingly our
main dependent variable was the compatibility effect of the reality words on
task-switching trials.
At the end of the study we measured goal commitment by participants’
feelings of taking responsibility for getting into the desired graduate school
(Cantor, Norem, Niedenthal, Langston, & Brower, 1987; Oettingen et al.,
2001). We found that mental contrasting (versus reverse contrasting and
irrelevant content) paired with high expectations fostered implicit obstacle
identification, while mental contrasting paired with low expectations
weakened implicit obstacle identification. The indicators of obstacle
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identification in turn mediated mental-contrasting effects on feelings of
responsibility for attaining the desired future.
We conceptually replicated these results (Study 3) by examining obstacle
identification in 10- to 12-year-old chess experts. We induced mental
contrasting versus reverse contrasting and asked the children to solve one
task where the solution required the identification of one’s own queen
standing in the way of the checkmate (i.e., obstacle task), whereas the other
task did not (i.e., non-obstacle task). Specifically, on the obstacle task
children had to see that their own queen stood in the way of the checkmate;
on the non-obstacle task the solution required a series of equally clever
moves unrelated to seeing something standing in the way. As our main
dependent variable we recorded whether the children came up with the right
solution, and how long it took them to find the solution.
Compared to the reverse-contrasting control condition, children in the
mental-contrasting condition with high expectations performed better on
the obstacle task: they more quickly and accurately detected the queen as an
obstacle. Children in the mental-contrasting condition with low expectations
performed worse, indicating that they had problems detecting the obstacle.
As predicted, in the reverse-contrasting and the irrelevant-content control
conditions, high and low expectations did not matter in the obstacle task.
Importantly there were no differences between any of the conditions in the
non-obstacle task.
In sum, a series of studies shows that the strength of associations between
future and reality, and between reality and instrumental means, mediates
mental-contrasting effects on relevant commitment and performance; the same
is true for identifying the reality as an obstacle. In other words, mental
contrasting spoils idealised future fantasies: When expectations of success are
high, as soon as the desired future appears in front of the mind’s eye the obstacle
of reality also appears. The obstacle in turn is then connected to means
instrumental to goal attainment. Quite to the contrary, when expectations of
success arelow, mental contrasting leads to the dissociation between future and
reality, andbetween reality and instrumental means;also, the reality is dismissed
as an obstacle. It seems, then, that the strength of associations between future,
reality, and instrumental means and the identification of relevant reality
aspects as obstacles play a pivotal role in producing the effects of mental
contrasting on the prudent selection of goal pursuits.
Motivational processes: Energisation
After discussing cognitive mediators, there is still the question of
motivational mediators of mental-contrasting effects on goal commitment.
As in the research on positive fantasy I will focus on the most basic variable
of motivation: energisation. Pioneer research in goal setting identified
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feelings of energisation as paramount to promoting goal-directed behaviour,
(Locke & Latham, 2002). It shows that commitment to realising a desired
future has an ‘‘energising function’’ (i.e., activity incitement; Brunstein &
Gollwitzer, 1996; subjective vitality; Ryan & Frederick, 1997); for example,
desired futures that prove challenging to achieve (e.g., a seasoned marathon
runner who sets her sights on beating a personal best time) give rise to
greater effort than less-challenging desired futures (e.g., a seasoned
marathon runner who sets her sights on finishing an upcoming marathon;
Locke & Latham, 2002). As previously discussed, when expectations of
success are high, mental contrasting, unlike the relevant control groups,
impels people to endorse the present reality as an obstacle to the desired
future, which consequently prompts commitment; when expectations of
success are low, mental contrasting does the contrary, people now dismiss
the reality as an obstacle lowering their commitment.
Thus Oettingen et al. (2009) investigated whether energisation serves as a
motivational process responsible for the effects of mental contrasting on
expectancy-dependent goal commitment and performance. Economics
students were asked to deliver a speech in front of a video camera
supposedly to help a human resource department develop a measure of
professional skills. Participants were assigned to either a mental-contrasting
or an indulging condition. As dependent variables participants indicated
their initial feelings of energisation via a self-report measure (e.g., How
energised do you feel when you think about giving your talk?), and to gauge
participants’ evaluations of their own presentations they were asked to rate
their performance. Commitment was assessed via independent raters’
evaluations of the quality of actual performance (Oettingen et al., 2009,
Study 2). Consistent with previous mental-contrasting studies, individuals in
the mental-contrasting condition (as compared to those in the indulging
condition) evidenced a strong link between perceived expectations of success
and subjective self-evaluations of performance as well as expectations and
objective ratings of the videotaped presentations (Figure 3). Importantly, in
the mental-contrasting condition feelings of energisation fully and
significantly explained the relation between expectations of success and
both the subjective and objective quality of performance.
A study measuring energisation by cardiovascular responses substan-
tiated these findings (Oettingen et al., 2009, Study 1). As pointed out before,
cardiovascular responses such as systolic blood pressure (SBP) are reliable
indicators of physiological arousal states and effort mobilisation (Gendolla
& Wright, 2005; Wright & Kirby, 2001). Participants indicated their
expectations of solving an important interpersonal concern and then were
induced to either mentally contrast or indulge regarding this concern. We
assessed SBP twice, before and during the thought procedure of mental
contrasting versus indulging, and then measured participants’ commitment
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to solve the concern by asking how disappointed they would feel if they did
not resolve their concern (Oettingen et al., 2001; Gollwitzer & Kirchhof,
1998).
Change in SBP as well as anticipated disappointment showed stronger
expectancy-dependence in the mental-contrasting than in the indulging
condition (Figure 4). As in the previous study, in the mental-contrasting
condition expectancy dependence of commitment was mediated by
energisation (here change in SBP). Interestingly, mental contrasting changed
the level of energisation from before to after mental contrasting for both
high-expectation and low-expectation participants, albeit in opposite
directions. Whereas mental contrasting increased energisation in high-
expectancy participants, it decreased energisation in low-expectancy
participants. On the contrary, changes in energisation were not seen in
indulging participants.
These two studies, examining energisation as a motivational mediator of
the effects of mental contrasting versus indulging, not only highlight the role
of energisation in expectation-dependent goal commitment but also point to
the possibility that energisation resulting from mental contrasting in one
domain may transfer to other unrelated domains. For example, when one
Figure 3. Regression lines depict the link between expectation and other-rated quality of
performance (left), self-rated quality of performance (middle), and feeling energised (right) as a
function of mental contrasting and indulging. From ‘‘Mental contrasting and goal commitment:
The mediating role of energisation’’, by G. Oettingen, D. Mayer, A. T. Sevincer, E. J. Stephens,
H. Pak, & M. Hagenah (2009). Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35, 608–622.
Copyright 2009 by the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, Inc. Reprinted with
permission.
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engages in mental contrasting with regards to an interpersonal concern, the
resulting expectancy-dependent energisation may transfer to studying for an
upcoming test.
In sum, in the presented studies the conscious self-regulatory procedure
of mental contrasting produced active changes in both explicit and implicit
measures of cognition, affect, and behaviour. On the contrary, indulging in
the desired future, dwelling on present reality, and reverse contrasting were
not change agents; instead they stabilised cognition, affect, and behaviour.
As mental contrasting is a strategy of behavior change we were interested in
the neural underpinnings of the procedure of mental contrasting.
Specifically we asked whether the mental-contrasting technique is an
effortful exercise and whether brain processes are involved which are in
line with the theoretical considerations of fantasy realisation theory.
Mental contrasting: Neural correlates
The experiments above show that mental-contrasting effects are based on
changes in implicit cognition and motivation, and that these non-conscious
effects in turn predict behavioural change. However, we assume that the
procedure of mental contrasting itself, as it involves reasoning and problem
Figure 4. Regression lines depict the link between expectation and goal commitment (left), and
expectation and SBP change in mmHg (right) as a function of mental contrasting and indulging.
From ‘‘Mental contrasting and goal commitment: The mediating role of energisation’’, by G.
Oettingen, D. Mayer, A. T. Sevincer, E. J. Stephens, H. Pak, & M. Hagenah (2009). Personality
and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35, 608–622. Copyright 2009 by the Society for Personality and
Social Psychology, Inc. Reprinted with permission.
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solving, should be a cognitively effortful and demanding exercise.
Specifically, as opposed to indulging, mental contrasting requires individuals
to look into the future, past, and present, as they form goal commitments in
line with their expectations. Continuous magnetoencephalography (MEG),
a brain-imaging technique measuring magnetic fields produced by electrical
activity in the brain (Achtziger, Fehr, Oettingen, Gollwitzer & Rockstroh,
2009), was used to test the assumption that mental contrasting and indulging
are two different mental procedures. The authors expected dissimilar
patterns of brain activity in areas associated with working memory, episodic
memory, intention maintenance, action preparation, and vivid visualisation.
Specifically, mental contrasting was predicted to show stronger activity in all
regions of interest in comparison to indulging. Using a within-participant
design, Achtziger et al. had student participants relax inside the MEG
machine during a 5-minute rest period, then mentally (as opposed to the
standard written elaboration) engage in either mental contrasting and then
indulging, or indulging and then mental contrasting. The self-regulation
exercises pertained to idiosyncratic desired and feasible future outcomes.
As such, mental contrasting was found to be associated with greater
activity in brain regions linked to working memory processes. However,
mental contrasting also led to more activity in brain areas associated with
episodic memory in line with mental contrasting demanding the elaboration
of reality in the context of the desired future. Such elaborations should
recruit memories of relevant obstacles that were experienced in the past as
well as relevant memories about past successes and failures in trying to
overcome them. Mental contrasting was also linked to heightened activity in
brain regions that are related to vividly imagining events. As mental
contrasting implies switching back and forth from images about a desired
future to images of impeding reality, images of both the desired future and
obstacles should become particularly vivid and crystallised. Finally, mental
contrasting led to more activity in brain regions that are related to holding
intentions and action preparation in line with mental contrasting forming
strong goal commitment, given that relevant expectations of success were
high.
Mental contrasting and indulging were identified as two distinct mental
activities, and mental contrasting resulted in more brain activity as
compared to indulging. These specific results support the mental procedures
ascribed to mental contrasting by fantasy realisation theory. They also
suggest that certain preliminaries have to be fulfilled in order for mental
contrasting to unfold its beneficial effects. For example, as mental
contrasting taxes working memory, people should not be able to effectively
perform mental contrasting whenever cognitive resources are blocked
by dual-task activities (e.g., demanding cognitive tasks, coping with
interpersonal stressors, extreme tiredness, or physical frailty and pain).
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Moreover, as mental contrasting is based on the effective retrieval of
relevant obstacles experienced in the past, it should be particularly effective
for people who have carefully encoded obstacles, which can thus be easily
and accurately retrieved from memory. Depicted in this MEG study is the
cognitive complexity of mental contrasting to promote expectancy-
dependent goal commitment and performance.
SUMMARY
Across life domains, mental contrasting produces expectancy-dependent
goal commitment and performance via non-conscious cognitive and
motivational processes. Specifically, mental contrasting modulates the
strength of the associations between future and reality as well as between
reality and instrumental means, and it changes whether the reality is
classified as an obstacle or not. Regarding motivational processes, mental
contrasting affects energisation measured non-consciously via systolic
blood pressure, but also consciously by self-reported feelings. Analysing
the conscious procedure of mental contrasting rather than its direct non-
conscious effects, the findings derived from continuous magnetoencepha-
lography (MEG) support the notion that the procedure of mental
contrasting is effortful as it activates brain areas involving working
memory, episodic memory, intention maintenance, action preparation, and
vivid visualisation.
Importantly, mental contrasting is a consciously enacted strategy that
triggers non-conscious processes of prudent (expectancy-dependent) goal
pursuit. Thus, the self-regulation strategy of mental contrasting should be
differentiated from processes of goal pursuit that run off by themselves
without conscious effort. Such self-reliant control processes of goal pursuit
may depend on goal properties (e.g., difficulty, complexity) or contextual
variables (e.g., distractions, temptations). An example of such self-reliant
control processes is the phenomenon of automatic effort increase when goal
pursuit becomes increasingly difficult (Wright, 1996). Also, counteractive
self-control can be seen as a self-reliant control process, as it addresses the
self-control operations that people automatically employ to prevent
temptations from undermining goal attainment (Fishbach & Trope, 2005).
Automatic self-control also underlies counteractive optimism, a self-control
strategy of generating optimistic predictions of future goal attainment when
anticipating obstacles during goal pursuit (Zhang & Fishbach, 2010). A final
example is goal shielding (measured by reduced accessibility of a competing
goal) that directly ensues when commitment to the focal goal is high (Shah
et al., 2002). Interestingly, when people consider the progress they have
made towards the goal there is less goal shielding, as people already open up
to competing goals; this effect occurs even with just the intention to make
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progress in the future (Fishbach & Dhar, 2005). However, this effect of goal
progress hampering goal shielding can only be expected if the goal-directed
actions taken (or intended) are interpreted by the individual as completing
the goal; if these actions are instead interpreted as indicating a strong
commitment to the focal goal, then improved goal shielding can be expected
(Fishbach, Dhar, & Zhang, 2006; Koo & Fishbach, 2008). In line with this
latter finding, mental contrasting produces expectancy-dependent associa-
tions only as long as the goal is still active; once it is completed these
associations vanish (A. Kappes & Oettingen, 2012, Study 4).
ORIGINS OF MENTAL CONTRASTING
Since mental contrasting has an impact on selective goal commitment and
performance, it seems meaningful to investigate which situational variables
affect the spontaneous use of mental contrasting. In six studies, H. B.
Kappes, Oettingen, Mayer, and Maglio (2011) started to address this
question. The authors hypothesised that sad mood as a contextual influence
promotes self-initiated mental contrasting. Mental contrasting—rather than
indulging, dwelling, and reverse contrasting—is a problem-solving proce-
dure that induces behaviour change. Therefore sad mood, as it facilitates
problem solving and signals a need for changing the status quo, should
foster mental contrasting more than happy or neutral moods.
Various mood inductions were used: In the first three studies, participants
read about an actual mood-inducing event (Study 1), wrote about a
hypothetical event (Study 2), and experienced a real event (Study 3). Mood
inductions also varied in modality: They were verbal (reading in Studies 1, 5;
writing in Study 2) as well as nonverbal (music in Studies 4, 6). Following
mood induction, in Studies 1 and 2, we measured self-regulation strategies
by adapting the paradigm used for the experimental studies. Specifically, all
participants had to name their presently most important wish or concern in
a given domain, to indicate the likelihood of wish fulfilment, and to generate
four aspects of wish fulfilment (i.e., desired future aspects), and four aspects
standing in the way of wish fulfilment (i.e., present reality aspects). Thus all
participants had to list eight aspects: four desired future aspects and four
present reality aspects. In the experimental research where self-regulation
strategies were manipulated, participants were next told which aspects to
elaborate in writing and in which order. In the present research, departing
from the experimental procedure, all participants instead freely chose the
order in which they elaborated and wrote on four (and only four) of these
eight aspects. Finally we classified participants according to their order of
elaboration to distinguish between those who spontaneously used mental
contrasting, indulging, dwelling, or reverse contrasting.
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Participants were identified as using mental contrasting when they chose
to elaborate two future aspects and two reality aspects and started with a
future aspect. Thus the criteria were that elaborations had to be balanced
between future and reality aspects and begin with a future aspect.
Participants who elaborated two future aspects and two reality aspects
but started with a reality aspect were identified as reverse contrasting.
Participants who predominantly elaborated aspects of the future or aspects
of reality (i.e., three or four future or reality aspects) were identified as
indulging or dwelling, respectively. In all six studies, across the various
mood inductions, we observed that sad mood—as it signals an impending
problem—facilitated self-initiated mental contrasting more than neutral
mood or happy mood. Importantly, mood did not affect the relation
between mental contrasting and selective formation of goal commitment.
Apparently sad mood aids in self-regulation by causing people to self-
initiate strategies producing goal commitments sensitive to their expecta-
tions of success.
While an understanding of the mechanisms underlying the beneficial
effects of mental contrasting and of the contextual elicitors of spontaneous
mental contrasting is important for furthering the psychology of goal
pursuit, it is equally important to develop an understanding of if and how
people can use these techniques on their own to enhance the quality of their
everyday lives. Thus the next section focuses on the metacognitive utility of
mental contrasting as well as the combined strategy of mental contrasting
with implementation intentions (i.e., MCII) as a first attempt to translate
years of laboratory research into practical applications to improve people’s
lives.
MENTAL CONTRASTING: INTERVENTIONS
The term translational research pertains to the translation of scientific
discoveries into practical applications to benefit the solving of societal and
individual problems (Tashiro & Mortensen, 2006; Woolf, 2008). The
question in our research has been whether mental contrasting can be used
for translational practices. Specifically, can individuals use mental contrast-
ing as a metacognitive strategy of desired behaviour change to benefit their
everyday lives and long-term endeavours? The next section describes how
teaching mental contrasting as a metacognitive strategy, by itself or in
combination with implementation intentions (MCII), may be used to help
people self-regulate their behaviour change—in professional and school life,
in everyday skills and integrative bargaining, as well as in improving critical
health behaviours.
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MENTAL CONTRASTING (MC)
As noted above, mental contrasting is a self-regulation strategy of wise goal
selection. It promotes the pursuit of feasible goals by strengthening
commitment, and at the same time it helps people to disengage from
unfeasible goals by weakening commitment. Mental contrasting can thus be
considered as a strategy fostering behaviour change—either it leads people
to actively get involved, or it leads people to actively let go of pursuing a
desired future, thus liberating them for alternative endeavours. Knowledge
about the strategy of mental contrasting allows for the creation of
metacognitive interventions that teach people how to wisely select their
short-term and long-term goal pursuits. The following study involving
healthcare professionals directly speaks to a brief intervention of the self-
regulation of wise goal selection by mental contrasting.
Mental contrasting (MC) increases management of everyday
life in healthcare professionals
Oettingen, Mayer, and Brinkmann (2010) hypothesised that applying mental
contrasting flexibly and independently to idiosyncratic everyday life
concerns helps people discriminate between those concerns that they are
able to resolve and concerns that they better delegate, postpone, or
relinquish. By contrast, indulging in everyday life should cause people to
moderately invest in solving their everyday concerns irrespective of whether
they will be able to resolve them or not. Such lack of discriminative
competence should put indulging people at risk for poor decision making
and ineffective time management.
The aim of the study was twofold: First, to examine if teaching people
mental contrasting enables them to apply mental contrasting as a
metacognitive strategy towards their own wishes and concerns, and second
to investigate how using mental contrasting affects meeting the demands of
everyday life. In the brief intervention Oettingen, Mayer, and Brinkmann
(2010) assigned middle-level healthcare managers to two conditions.
Participants in one condition were taught to use mental contrasting regarding
their everyday concerns, while participants in the other condition were taught
to indulge. Two weeks later participants in the mental-contrasting condition
reported having fared better in managing their time and decision making
during everyday life than those in the indulging condition. In addition they
reported having successfully completed some tasks and delegated or
relinquished others. The results suggest that, by helping people to set
expectancy-dependent goals, the metacognitive strategy of mental contrasting
qualifies as a cost- and time-effective tool to improve the management of
everyday life. Whereas the Oettingen, Mayer, and Brinkmann (2010) study
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pertains to adaptive choice of individualised everyday goals, a recent study
investigates whether mental contrasting can be taught to support school-
children in solving standardised tasks in constrained group contexts.
Mental contrasting (MC) increases school performance in
disadvantaged elementary- and middle-school children
Teaching mental contrasting as a strategy that helps people to solve
standardised tasks in group contexts seems especially important in
organisational and educational institutions where there are no options for
disengagement (i.e., no child left behind). Two brief intervention studies
investigated whether mental contrasting can be used in class contexts as a
time- and cost-effective self-regulation strategy to support learning in young
children from disadvantaged backgrounds (A. Gollwitzer et al., 2011).
The authors postulated and observed that teaching mental contrasting of
feasible desired future outcomes would result in better academic perfor-
mance than teaching students to only think positively about the respective
future. Specifically, German elementary-school children and U.S. middle-
school children from low-income neighbourhoods who were taught mental
contrasting regarding an effort-dependent and attainable foreign language
task (i.e., high expectations of success) achieved comparatively higher scores
in learning foreign language vocabulary words after 2 weeks or 4 days,
respectively. That is, mental contrasting increased academic performance in
school children from low-income areas as young as 7 years old. Going
beyond interventions teaching mental contrasting of idiosyncratic wishes,
the present educational intervention targeted a desired future that all
children could attain. The study thus shows how mental contrasting can be
applied to solve assigned and standardised learning tasks in a group setting,
benefiting all members of the group without leaving any child behind.
Individuals can also be taught mental contrasting as a strategy to
vigorously pursue their wishes and concerns rather than select between
feasible and unfeasible future endeavours. They just need to be instructed to
practice and apply mental contrasting to the wishes and concerns that they
feel are challenging, but at the same time are well within their reach. Thus
the following intervention study investigates the effects of mental contrast-
ing applied to idiosyncratic wishes that are also deemed feasible (i.e., high
expectations of success).
Mental contrasting (MC) improves health behaviour in dieting
students
Using a brief mental-contrasting intervention, Johannessen et al. (in press)
asked dieting students to name the most important dieting wish that they
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deemed attainable within a 2-week period. Then students in one condition
were directed to mentally contrast, while those in the other condition were
directed to indulge in thoughts and images about the named dieting wish;
remaining students were placed in a no-treatment control condition. Two
weeks afterwards dieters retrospectively rated their behaviour change: In the
mental-contrasting condition participants reported having consumed fewer
calories overall, fewer high-calorie foods, and more low-calorie foods
compared to those in the indulging and control conditions.
Interestingly, using mental contrasting on the feasible dieting wish not
only led to comparatively smaller calorie intake, but its effects transferred
across domains: Mental-contrasting students also reported having been
more physically active. This transfer effect from the diet to the exercise
domain suggests a more generalised effect of mental contrasting; however,
we do not yet know how mental contrasting transferred across domains.
Perhaps effectively applying mental contrasting to improve one’s diet might
ready an individual to use the same self-regulatory tool regarding exercise.
Or it is the energisation induced by mentally contrasting the dieting wish
that transfers to being more physically active. Finally, dieting itself may spur
more exercise (Dunn et al., 2006). All of these processes may cause the
transfer of mental-contrasting effects to other life domains as well (e.g., the
academic and interpersonal domains).
Mental contrasting (MC) facilitates integrative bargaining
Another everyday life task that may benefit from mental contrasting is
finding integrative solutions when dealing with others. Kirk, Oettingen, and
Gollwitzer (2011) investigated this question in the framework of an
integrative bargaining task, ‘‘New Car’’, (developed by the Dispute
Resolution Research Center at the Kellogg School of Business). In this
task, partners (seller and buyer) can earn mutually beneficial agreements if
they make trade-offs on issues of a car sale that matter more to one partner
than the other. Participants were instructed that they would negotiate with
each other anonymously, over an instant messenger programme, and that
they would have 20 minutes to come to an agreement. Successful bargaining
(point maximisation) is based on readily finding integrative solutions. The
best way to find integrative solutions and thereby to maximise profit is to
express demands that are beneficial to oneself but do not hurt the other
person, and to make concessions that benefit the other person but do not
hurt oneself. Mental contrasting, as it promotes discrimination among
possible means to goal attainment (Oettingen, Stephens, et al., 2010), should
enable such reasonable demands and concessions.
Before negotiating, both partners were taught how to engage in mental
contrasting regarding point maximisation (e.g., feelings of pride or proving a
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skilled person) with the reality standing in the way of earning many points
(e.g., the other person being stubborn or time running out), in indulging, or
in dwelling. Participants in the control condition moved directly to the
negotiation task with no training. The authors observed that mental
contrasting led to finding more integrative agreements and thus higher joint
profits compared to indulging, dwelling, or control participants. However,
mental contrasting not only enhanced the amount of joint profits achieved,
it also led to heightened equity of achieved profits. The findings remained
significant even when adjusting for social value orientation, subjective
negotiation style, gender, and negotiator competence. Supporting that
mental contrasting leads to selective use of instrumental means and to
prosocial behaviour in terms of help-giving (Oettingen, Stephens, et al.,
2010), the present findings show that mental contrasting also causes people
to find creative and cooperative solutions in negotiation settings.
MENTAL CONTRASTING WITH IMPLEMENTATION
INTENTIONS (MCII)
Mental contrasting helps to discriminate between feasible and unfeasible
goals, so that goal pursuit is enhanced when expectations are high, and
weakened when expectations of success are low. When goal disengagement
is not a viable option, mental contrasting can be directed to form strong goal
commitments to desired focal goals that are also feasible. However, even if
people form strong goal commitments they are not always successful at
translating them into effective goal-directed behaviour. For instance people
might simply forget to act, they might be unaware of suitable situations for
actions, or they might be distracted if and when a suitable situation presents
itself. Implementation intentions (Gollwitzer, 1999) help to avert these
problems as they specify a relevant cue (‘‘If I have the urge to snack crisps’’)
and link it to a respective goal-directed response (‘‘then I will eat a piece of
fruit’’).
Therefore mental contrasting and implementation intentions are
complementary procedures: Mental contrasting when expectations of
success are high fosters energisation and goal commitment. Such goal
commitment is necessary for implementation intentions to unfold their
effects (Sheeran, Webb, & Gollwitzer, 2005). In addition, mental
contrasting helps to specify the personal obstacles and the means that
can be used to specify the if- and then- parts of implementation
intentions. Adding to the non-conscious associations between the
obstacles and respective instrumental means produced by mental
contrasting, in forming implementation intentions people explicitly
formulate if-then associations between the obstacle and instrumental
means. These associations are then strong enough to instigate automatic
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action control when the specified situation is encountered (Gollwitzer &
Sheeran, 2006). In sum, mental contrasting provides the prerequisites for
implementation intentions to enhance goal attainment.
MCII facilitates integrative bargaining—more than mental
contrasting and implementation intentions alone
To extend the findings of the previous study, Kirk, Oettingen, and
Gollwitzer (in press) tested the impact of the different modes of self-
regulatory thought: MCII versus mental contrasting and implementation
intention alone on performance in the bargaining task just described. Again,
participants were randomly assigned to dyads and negotiated over the sale
of a car. Before negotiating we induced one of the three self-regulation
strategies noted above (in both seller and buyer).
We found that using the combined strategy of mental contrasting with
implementation intentions (MCII) led to higher joint gains than using
either mental contrasting or implementation intentions alone. Content
analysis revealed that dyads who only formed implementation intentions
did not develop the insight necessary for cooperative planning; conse-
quently they resulted in the lowest joint gains. On the other hand, mental
contrasting produced insight into cooperative planning, but without
forming explicit if-then plans; participants earned joint gains only at a
level that was in between implementation intentions and MCII.
Interestingly the cooperative planning mediated the observed effect on
joint gain. Apparently, mental contrasting promoted the insights needed
for finding integrative solutions.
MCII breaks snacking habits—more than mental contrasting
and implementation intentions alone
Adriaanse et al. (2010) tested MCII against its components and a control
group in the health domain. In a first study, the authors investigated the
effectiveness of combining mental contrasting with implementations in
diminishing unhealthy snacking habits. Participants were either taught
MCII or, in the control condition, were asked to think about and list
healthy options for snacks. As predicted, participants in the MCII
condition consumed fewer unhealthy snacks than participants in the
control condition. Importantly, in Study 2 MCII was more effective than
mental contrasting or forming implementation intentions alone. Interest-
ingly, and in line with the findings that mental contrasting helps people
wisely discriminate which goals to pursue and which not, mental
contrasting increased perceived clarity about critical cues for unhealthy
snacking. Together these findings suggest that MCII is an effective
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strategy for fighting bad habits. One of the underlying processes making
MCII superior to implementation intentions alone may be that mental
contrasting produces clarity about the critical cues for the unwanted
habitual behaviour.
MCII heightens exercise behaviour in healthy participants
A challenging test for the effectiveness of mental contrasting with
implementation intentions is to produce long-term improvements of health
habits, of exercise on the one hand and of a healthy diet on the other. In
fact, a common finding with regard to health behaviour change is that while
initial success is quite prevalent, long-term maintenance of the changed
behaviour is rare (Polivy & Herman, 2002). However, extended behaviour
modification is necessary if one wants to reap the benefits of protective
health behaviours (e.g., for regular exercise: Department of Health, 2004).
Yet roughly half of the individuals who begin a self-monitored exercise
programme abandon it within 6 months (Dishman, 1991). Therefore it
seems crucial to develop interventions to facilitate long-term behaviour
change in exercise.
Stadler, Oettingen, and Gollwitzer (2009) conducted an intervention
study to determine whether participants who received relevant information
and were taught the MCII technique would exercise more, immediately after
the intervention and in the long-run, than participants in an information-
only control group. Middle-aged women were recruited to take part in this
intervention study focusing on healthy lifestyles. In the information-only
control group women learned about the benefits of regular exercise. In the
MCII group participants received the same information, and learned the
mental-contrasting technique (once for 1 hour with one half-hour telephone
follow-up). Specifically, participants were asked to apply MCII by
themselves to the wish or goal of exercising whenever possible. Participants
were free to choose whatever form of exercising they wished to engage in,
and they were encouraged to anticipate those obstacles that were personally
most relevant.
Participants in the MCII group were taught how to form three types
of implementation intentions regarding the obstacle standing in the way
of exercising (e.g., feeling too tired in the evening to go for a run) using
an ‘‘if-then’’ format: one to overcome the obstacle generated by mental
contrasting (e.g., If I feel exhausted when I get home from work tonight,
then I will immediately put on my running shoes and go for a jog in the
neighbourhood), one to prevent this obstacle (e.g., If I hear the clock
chime five o’clock, then I will pack my things and leave the office to go
for a run), and one to identify a good opportunity to act (e.g., If the sun
is shining, then I will go for a 30-minute jog in the park). Participants
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learned the MCII-technique with regards to their short- and long-term
concerns (for a sample practice sheet regarding a 24-hour exercise wish,
see Figure 5).
As dependent measures, participants recorded in daily diaries how much
they had exercised in 15-minute intervals. As compared to baseline the
MCII technique enhanced exercise more than the information only
intervention. This effect emerged immediately after the intervention and
remained stable for 4, 8, and 16 weeks after the intervention. Participants
in the MCII group exercised nearly twice as much, that is, 1 hour more per
week, as compared to baseline and as compared to participants in the
information control group. As moderate amounts of physical exercise are
shown to strengthen cardiovascular and respiratory systems, decrease risk
for heart disease and Type 2 diabetes, help with weight control, improve
stress and pain management, reduce risks of certain types of cancers and
improve quality of sleep (Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and
Research, 2007), the MCII intervention may have far-reaching conse-
quences for overall health.
MCII heightens healthy eating
To test the effects of MCII on healthy eating, Stadler, Oettingen, and
Gollwitzer (2010) used the above-described intervention regarding concerns
of healthy eating, this time counting the number of portions of fruits and
vegetables (for a sample practice sheet regarding a 24-hour diet wish, see
Figure 6). As dependent variables, participants filled out diaries for 7
consecutive days at baseline and at five follow-up times. They marked one
Figure 5. Sample practice sheet: Exercise.
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box in the diary for each serving of fruits and vegetables they ate. One
serving was defined in the diary instructions as one handful of cut raw,
frozen, cooked, or canned fruits or vegetables, or one glass of 100% content
Figure 6. Sample practice sheet: Healthy eating.
Figure 7. Intake of fruits and vegetables (in servings per week) for information þMCII group
and information group only over the 24 months of the study, model-based estimated means and
standard errors. B ¼Baseline, 0 ¼week immediately after intervention. From ‘‘Intervention
effects of information and self-regulation on eating fruits and vegetables over two years’’, by G.
Stadler, G. Oettingen, & P. M. Gollwitzer (2010). Health Psychology, 29, 274–283. Copyright
2010 by the American Psychological Association. Reprinted with permission.
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fruit or vegetable juice (see Kim & Holoway, 2003, for validation of brief
measures for fruit and vegetable intake).
The 24-month randomised controlled trial showed that already shortly
after the intervention, and for as long as 2 years thereafter, participants in
the MCII group ate more fruits and vegetables than the information-only
group; the latter group returned to baseline levels (see Figure 7). These
results were obtained even though participants were not contacted any more
in the period between 4 and 24 months after the intervention. In sum,
teaching MCII induced eating more healthily than teaching information
only – right away and over a period of 2 years after the intervention.
MCII improves mobility in chronic back pain patients
A great challenge facing many physical therapists who work with chronic
back pain patients is motivating patients to exercise. One obstacle standing
in the way of successful rehabilitation is that pain sufferers anticipate pain in
any activity-related situation, and thus tend to avoid activity altogether. In
this study, the MCII intervention was adapted for a clinical sample of
chronic back pain patients (Christiansen, Oettingen, Dahme, & Klinger,
2010). Back pain outpatients were taught the MCII technique in conjunction
with the standard treatment offered to chronic back pain sufferers. The
standard outpatient back pain programme offered by the rehabilitation
centre entailed 3 to 4 weeks of treatment including individual informative
seminars (e.g., relaxation techniques, handling stress), medical care, and
psychological consultation, physical therapy, and exercise. The experimental
condition added two half-hour sessions to the standard back pain
programme: In the first session participants engaged in mental contrasting
about realising fantasies related to improved mobility (e.g., increasing
mobility in everyday life; playing with a grandchild); and during the second
session participants identified behaviours in response to the obstacles
generated in the first session to serve as the focus of implementation
intentions (e.g., ‘‘If I am afraid of causing damage to myself, then I will
remember that movement heals pain’’, ‘‘If I see my baby granddaughter at
our next family picnic, then I will bend down to play with her’’).
The dependent variables for this study were physical strength, appro-
priate lifting behaviour, and pain severity, determined once 10 days and
again 3 months post-intervention, all in comparison to respective pre-
intervention baseline measures. To assess physical strength participants
completed a self-report measure to gauge their functional limitations in
activities of daily living, and two objective measures: a lifting test (i.e.,
‘‘handling load’’ of the Functional Capacity Evaluation, FCE; Gouttebarge,
Wind, Kuijer, & Frings-Dresen, 2004) and a bicycle ergometer test. To
assess severity of pain, participants completed a self-report rating scale.
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Patients in the MCII intervention group increased physical strength and
mobility at 10 days and 3 months after the intervention as assessed by both
the subjective and objective measures. These effects were independent of
participants’ experienced pain, which did not differ between conditions
during and after treatment. Altogether, the intervention consisted of two
sessions for a total of 1 hour. Other short-term psychological interventions
take at least 4 to 6 hours (e.g., Linton & Nordin, 2006; for review see the
findings of the ‘‘Cochrane Back Group’’; Ostelo et al., 2005). Studies
including problem-solving approaches contain multiple sessions (e.g., 19
half-day sessions over the course of 8 weeks; van den Hout, Vlaeyen, Heuts,
Zijlema, & Wijnen, 2003). The present findings suggest that MCII is a
powerful time- and cost-effective self-regulatory tool that, in no more than
one hour, can help promote physical activity in patients known to have
difficulties with rehabilitation.
MCII fosters studying for an important standardised test (PSAT)
So far MCII intervention studies have pertained to the health domain. An
equally challenging area for behaviour change is improving study behaviour
in adolescents. Therefore Duckworth, Grant, Loew, Oettingen, and
Gollwitzer (2011) tested the effect of MCII in American second-year high-
school students preparing to take a high-stakes standardised exam in the
autumn of their third year. They were randomly assigned to complete either
a 30-minute written MCII intervention or a placebo control writing exercise.
Participants in the intervention condition completed over 60% more
practice questions than did participants in the control condition. These
findings point to the usefulness of MCII in academic achievement. They also
speak to the ease of teaching MCII to young participants (see also the
above-mentioned mental-contrasting intervention on foreign language
acquisition with elementary-school children; A. Gollwitzer et al., 2011).
Finally, by sustaining effort on standardised tests MCII should be of great
benefit to adolescents’ future lives.
MCII increases attendance and grade point average (GPA) in
disadvantaged middle-school children
An open question is whether MCII has long-lasting effects on attendance
and course grades, especially in disadvantaged students. To answer this
question, Duckworth, Kirby, A. Gollwitzer, and Oettingen (2011)
conducted an intervention study with fifth-grade middle-school children
from disadvantaged backgrounds. One group of children learned how to
apply MCII to their everyday wishes and concerns; the other group of
children were taught to think and feel positively about fulfilling their
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wishes and solving their concerns. In the MCII condition, children were
taught how to do the Wish Outcome Obstacle Plan (WOOP) exercise
(Oettingen, 1996), and they were encouraged to apply it to their everyday
life wishes and concerns. Specifically, the WOOP exercise entails that
individuals generate a Wish, name and mentally elaborate its best
Outcome, name and elaborate their relevant personal Obstacle, and then
form an ‘‘if obstacle/opportunity, then goal-directed action’’ Plan (for a
practice sheet of the WOOP exercise, see Figure 8, left side). To prevent
dissemination of the MCII procedure among the participating children, in
the positive-thinking control group the children were taught an exercise
also called WOOP. However, there were subtle differences in the WOOP
taught to children in the MCII group versus the control group.
Specifically, in the control group children had to generate a Wish, name
and mentally elaborate its best Outcome, but then they had to name and
elaborate another best Outcome (instead of the relevant personal obstacle),
and they had to form an ‘‘if outcome, then feeling’’ Plan (instead of form
an ‘‘if obstacle/opportunity, then goal-directed action’’ plan; for a practice
sheet of the positive-thinking control condition, see Figure 8, right side).
Compared to children in the positive-thinking control condition, children
taught MCII at the start of the spring semester significantly improved their
report card grades and came to school on time more reliably by the end of
the school year. These findings suggest that MCII may also be used as a
cost- and time-effective strategy to help close the achievement gap between
disadvantaged and advantaged children.
SUMMARY
Mental contrasting, by itself and in conjunction with implementation
intentions, can be taught as a metacognitive strategy to produce behaviour
change ranging from management of everyday life, learning basic academic
and interpersonal bargaining skills, to self-discipline as well as objective
Figure 8. Practice sheets of the WOOP exercise.
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school attendance and report card grades. It improves regular exercise and
healthy eating as well as physical mobility in back pain patients. The results
are based on interventions with samples of different ages ranging from
children to middle-aged adults and from different cultures such as the
United States and Germany. It seems evident that mental contrasting can be
ubiquitously applied as a metacognitive strategy to help people manage and
improve their everyday lives.
CONCLUSION
Every new generation has its unique psychological burdens and it seems that
stress and lack of time are some of the salient burdens of our time. The
findings reported in the present article suggest that the strategy of ‘‘Think
positive!’’ is not enough to alleviate the time crunch and overwhelming
demands in our daily lives. On the contrary, thinking positive can result in
low effort and little success in meeting our goals. In fact, thinking about an
idealised future can feign having already attained the desired future, and
thus detract from the cumbersome but necessary effort to actually reaching
success.
Despite what the self-help and coaching industry wants us to believe, for
desired behaviour change to occur thinking about the future should involve
both the desired future and the resisting reality. Only then can future and
reality be mentally connected in the sense that the reality contains obstacles
that can and will be mastered on the way to fantasy realisation. Therefore
mental contrasting of future and reality energises people to successfully
attain the wishes that are within their reach; at the same time, it de-energises
people when their wishes are beyond their reach, thus promoting
disengagement, freeing people for alternative pursuits.
Intervention research shows that mental contrasting can be taught as a
metacognitive strategy in a cost- and time-effective way. It produces
behaviour change and mastery of everyday life and long-term pursuits.
However, it also triggers new insights, creativity, and integrative negotiation
skills leading to actual successes in, for example, bargaining and breaking
bad habits. Importantly, mental contrasting can be used in combination
with implementation intentions as an exercise called mental contrasting with
implementation intentions (MCII). Mental contrasting and implementation
intentions complement each other: Mental contrasting provides the
necessary strong goal commitment and it facilitates the identification and
endorsement of relevant cues and instrumental behaviours, which then
specify the if- and the then- components of implementation intentions.
The self-regulatory strategy of mental contrasting enables people to
discriminate between their feasible and unfeasible desires, provides the
strength to change what stands in the way of achieving the feasible, and
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gives the composure to let go of the unfeasible desires—to then re-engage in
alternative pursuits. This discriminative aptitude may be referred to as
motivational intelligence. Not to forget, however, that motivational
intelligence also means to engage in indulging when expectations are low
and relinquishment is not an option—as it allows people to stay in the field.
Finally, motivational intelligence means to cease indulging and engage in
mental contrasting once expectations of success have been sufficiently
strengthened.
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... Predicting the future is a highly regarded human faculty. As previous research has noted, beliefs about the future can be surprisingly accurate when based on past or present experiences (Bandura, 1977;Mellers et al., 2015;Mischel, 1973;Oettingen, 2012). For example, relying on statistical information, people can accurately predict weather trends and outcomes of sports events (e.g., Martino, 2003). ...
... Research has, for instance, examined attitudinal certainty (e.g., Petty & Krosnick, 1995;Skitka, 2010) and unfounded certainty (e.g., Burton, 2008;Gollwitzer & Oettingen, 2019). At the same time, studies have examined future thought (e.g., predictions, expectations) in relation to decision making (e.g., Gilbert & Ebert, 2002), motivation (e.g., behavior change; Oettingen, 2012), and affect (e.g., pessimism about the future, e.g., Miranda & Mennin, 2007). Here, we combine these two research areas-certainty and future thought-to investigate subjective certainty about future events (hereafter referred to as "future certainty") as a psychological phenomenon. ...
... Unlike beliefs held with doubt that can be updated in a Bayesian sense in response to new information, knowledge or certainty is not impacted by, and may even increase, in response to counter-information (Petty & Krosnick, 1995). Additionally, while beliefs are typically informed by experiences and facts (Bandura, 1977;Mischel, 1973;Oettingen, 2012), certainty or "felt-knowledge" is often informed by one's desires and wishes, and is less founded in one's experience and reality (Gollwitzer & Oettingen, 2019). Taken together, future certainty should operate as a mental state that is distinct from holding beliefs about the future, and in turn, have unique cognitive and behavioral consequences. ...
Article
Past research has independently examined the concepts of certainty and future thought. Here we combine these concepts by examining the cognitive and behavioral outcomes of certainty about the future during periods of societal uncertainty. Three studies (N = 1218) examined future certainty, defined as feeling certain about some future event or outcome, during two major societal events of uncertainty—the COVID-19 pandemic and the 2020 U.S. Presidential Election. In Study 1, certainty about positive or negative futures of COVID-19 (e.g., the pandemic will end soon; the pandemic will never end) predicted poorer information seeking—ignorance of medical experts, adherence to conspiratorial thinking, and lower objective knowledgeability about COVID-19. Building on these findings, in Study 2, future certainty predicted antisocial health behaviors, including failing to social distance. Study 3 extended these findings to the political domain—the 2020 Presidential Election. Future certainty that one's preferred candidate would win the election predicted poor information seeking and antisocial behaviors in terms of claiming that the election was rigged, endorsing violence if one's candidate lost, and, among Trump supporters, identifying with Capitol insurrectionists. These findings suggest that future certainty is linked to intellectual blindness and antisocial behaviors during important periods of societal uncertainty.
... Given that negative fantasies about COVID-19 are already widespread and reside in individuals' minds, it is critical to address a way to turn these negative fantasies into preventative actions that will inhibit the actualization of these negative fantasies. In the present paper, we propose that mental contrasting, which has its basis in fantasy realization theory (Oettingen, 2000(Oettingen, , 2012, can be an effective way to facilitate COVID-19 preventative behaviors, such as paying attention to COVID-19 related information and practicing physical distancing. ...
... Fantasies about the future are free-flowing thoughts and images depicting a future event and may refer to both positively and negatively valenced future events (Oettingen, 2012;Oettingen & Mayer, 2002). The valence of a future event is independent of whether one would like to approach or avoid it. ...
... Likewise, for negative future events, one might want to avoid an undesired negative future (e.g., avoiding the infection with a virus) or approach a negative future (e.g., approaching the dentist). Fantasy realization theory proposes that mental contrasting, a self-regulatory strategy, can be used for all these four instances and motivates people to engage in approach/avoidance behaviors for positive/negative future events (Oettingen, 2012;Oettingen & Sevincer, 2018). ...
Article
Full-text available
Objective: The present research examined whether mentally contrasting a negative, feared future (i.e., infection with the Coronavirus) with a still positive reality can promote preventative actions in the context of the pandemic. Design: In two randomized controlled trials, we varied participants' mode of thought (mental contrasting of a negative future with a positive reality versus fantasizing of a negative future). Study 2 took into account the interpersonal nature of the pandemic and manipulated the mode of thought in a vicarious manner (vicarious mental contrasting versus vicarious negative fantasizing). Main Outcome Measures: After the manipulation, we assessed participants' intentions to learn about COVID-19 (Study 1) and attention to COVID-19 information (Study 1 and 2). Three days later, we measured the amount of physical distancing (Study 1 and 2). Results: Study 1 found that mental contrasting leads to more COVID-19 preventative behaviors than mere negative fantasizing. In Study 2, we observed that vicarious mental contrasting facilitates physical distancing among people who initially showed low compliance with COVID-19 preventative behaviors and thus were in most need of a boost in preventative behavior. Conclusion: The findings suggest that mental contrasting of negative fantasies may be an effective way to encourage COVID-19 preventative behaviors.
... People take future-focused action when the gap between their current and desired possible identities gets too big, the gap between their current and undesired possible identities gets too small, or their progress addressing their self-gaps is slower than expected. Oettingen's (2012) Mental Contrasting theory predicts that gaps are only motivating when people high in efficacy consider the gaps in a specific way-elaborating on their desired possible identity, then on FUTURE SELF TO CURRENT ACTION: AN INTEGRATION OF THE EVIDENCE 9 obstacles blocking their current me from attaining that possible identity. Mental contrast predicts that gaps between current and future identities do not trigger future-focused action if considered in other ways or by people low in efficacy. ...
... Mostly that future is positive, butOettingen et al., 2005, Study 2 had some participants mental contrast an undesired negative future and a positive current situation.3 Kirk et al., 2011;and Sheeran et al., 2013 did not assess efficacy.Sevincer et al., 2014, Study 2 measured efficacy in a domain unrelated to the dependent variable.Oettingen et al., 2012, Studies 1, 2 operationalized efficacy as positive performance feedback. ...
Chapter
Full-text available
We comprehensively reviewed and organized the literature examining the relationship between future selves and current action. We distinguish studies focused on possible selves, self-gap, and self-continuity, which focus on different aspects of the future self, make distinct predictions and provide conflicting results. We use the dynamic construction, action-readiness, and procedural-readiness components of identity-based motivation (IBM) theory to make sense of these findings. In doing so, we shift focus from what future me is—positive or negative, close or distant, continuous or discontinuous with current me—to what future me does. We make three predictions regarding when people maintain present-focused action and when they switch to future-focused action. People maintain present-focused action if (1) future me is not on the mind or feels irrelevant to current choices or (2) they understand difficulties taking future-focused action as low value or low odds of success. (3) In contrast, they shift to future-focused action if future me feels relevant to current choices and difficulties taking future-focused action seem to imply the value of doing so.
... Merely thinking about an ideal future can lead to positive affect but decreases the chances that a person takes action in order to realise the desired future (Oettingen & Sevincer, 2018). Contrasting the ideal future with the current state, on the other hand, leads to more effort and positive outcomes (Oettingen, 2012;Oettingen et al., 2010). Knowing which habits one would like to change, improves the chances of actual behavioural change (Holland et al., 2006;Graybiel & Smith, 2014). ...
Thesis
Full-text available
Academic thriving stands for a combination of academic outcomes as well as success in other relevant domains, such as well-being or finding the right job. What causes students to thrive academically? The studies in this dissertation contributed to this question with the use of experimental, interdisciplinary and longitudinal studies, and a critical theoretical examination of the arguments against evidence-based education. A large-scale field experiment showed that first-year students who reflected on their desired future, prioritized goals, and wrote detailed plans on how to reach these goals, performed significantly better (in study credits and retention) than students who made a control assignment. This low-cost and scalable goal-setting assignment was made at the start of college and only took the students two hours to complete. Personalized follow-up feedback delivered by an AI-enhanced chatbot could further improve benefits to study outcomes as well as well-being. The final study in this dissertation tracked the effects of different types of work on the study progress of teacher education students over a four-year span. This longitudinal study showed that student who had a paid job in education gained more study credits than students with other types of work or without a job. Additionally it showed that working 8 hours per week relates with the most study progress in the first and third semester of college.
... Additionally, while beliefs held with doubt usually update in a Bayesian sense (based on new information), certainty is not impacted by, and may even increase, in response to counterinformation (see Petty, 2021). Finally, while felt knowledge is informed by people's desires and relates to greater intuitive thinking (Gollwitzer & Oettingen, 2019), beliefs are typically informed by experiences and facts (Bandura, 1977;Mischel, 1973;Oettingen, 2012;Schunk, 2012). Taken together, then, felt knowledge or certainty involves a higher degree of mental rigidity than mere belief and is less founded in one's experience and factual reality. ...
Article
Full-text available
Examining the epistemic and social-cognitive structures underlying fanaticism, radicalization, and extremism should shed light on how these harmful phenomena develop and can be prevented. In nine studies (N = 3,277), we examined whether discordant knowing-felt knowledge about something that one perceives as opposed by most others-underlies fanaticism. Across multifaceted approaches, experimentally manipulating participants' views to fall under this framework (e.g., "I am certain about X, but most other people think X is unknowable or wrong") heightened indicators of fanaticism, including aggression, determined ignorance, and wanting to join extreme groups in the service of these views. Additional analyses found that this effect occurs via threat-based mechanisms (Studies 1-7), can be intervened on to prevent fanaticism (Study 2), is conditional on the potency of opposition (Study 3), differs from effects on extremism (Study 4), and extends to mental representations of the self (Study 5). Generalizing these findings to real-world contexts, inducing participants with discordant knowledge about the 2020 U.S. Presidential Election and the morality of abortion heightened fanaticism regarding these topics (Studies 6 and 7). Additionally, antivaccine fanatics and followers of a real-world fanatical religious group exhibited greater discordant knowing than nonfanatical individuals (Studies 8 and 9). Collectively, the present studies suggest that a specific epistemic structure-discordant knowing-underlies fanaticism, and further, highlight the potential of investigating constructs like fanaticism from an epistemic social cognitive perspective. (PsycInfo Database Record (c) 2022 APA, all rights reserved).
... Albeit modest in size, these findings have real-world implications. Although disengagement from an attained goal is an effective strategy whenever the newly acquired resources are then reinvested in another competing goal (Oettingen, 2012;Schwörer et al., 2020), prevention closure seems to decrease investment of resources altogether, at least temporally. Considering regulatory focus as an adjustable component of the environment first (as was the case in the present research), our results suggest that task characteristics (i.e., that put people more in promotion or prevention focus) in everyday life could either facilitate or limit the emergence of the regulatory closure effect. ...
Article
Full-text available
Past research has found that regulatory closure, that is, successful goal striving regulated either under a promotion or prevention focus, has important consequences in terms of motivational activation and mobilisation of cognitive resources in subsequent tasks, but it mostly investigated motivation in the same or similar tasks to the one for which closure was achieved. Drawing from an energisation-deactivation hypothesis, we investigated the effect of closure on performance and persistence in unrelated subsequent cognitive tasks. Across four studies, we found that promotion closure had an energising effect leading to: quicker decision times in lexical tasks (Studies 1-2), increased persistence and greater originality (Study 3), and greater visuospatial memory performance (Study 4). In contrast, prevention closure had a deactivating effect leading to reduced performance and persistence. No systematic differences arose in situations of non-closure. We discuss results and implications with respect to both regulatory closure and regulatory fit theoretical approaches.
... The first step of MC is to name an important, feasible wish and imagine the best outcome of fulfillment. These positive fantasies are juxtaposed with thoughts of one's inner obstacle standing in the way (Oettingen, 2012). For example, a person may Wish to reduce smoking by half, then identify having more money as the best Outcome. ...
Article
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Smoking consequences are seen disproportionately among low-SES smokers. We examine the self-regulatory strategy of mental contrasting with implementation intentions (MCII) as a smoking reduction tool and whether its effectiveness depends on subjective-SES. This pre-registered online experiment comprised a pre-screening, baseline survey, and follow-up. Participants reported past-week smoking, subjective-SES, perceived stress, and were randomized to an active control (n = 161) or MCII condition (n = 164). Data were collected via MTurk, during the U.S.’ initial wave of COVID-19. Participants were moderate-to-heavy smokers open to reducing or quitting. The primary outcome was self-reported smoking reduction, computed as the difference between recent smoking at baseline and follow-up. The secondary outcome was cessation, operationalized as self-reported 7-day point-prevalence abstinence at follow-up. Among those low—but not high—in subjective-SES, MCII (vs. control) improved smoking reduction by an average of 1.09 fewer cigarettes smoked per day, though this effect was not conclusive (p = 0.11). Similarly, quitting was descriptively more likely for those in the MCII than control condition, but the effect was non-significant (p = 0.11). Per an exploratory analysis, we observed that stress significantly moderated the condition effect (p = 0.01), such that MCII (vs. control) facilitated reduction among those experiencing high (p = 0.03), but not low stress (p = 0.15). Consistent with prior findings that MCII works best in vulnerable populations, MCII may be more effective for smoking reduction among high-stress than low-stress individuals. These findings contribute to growing research on income-related health disparities and smoking behavior change tools.
... Με αυτόν τον τρόπο ενισχύεται η δέσμευσή τους για την επίτευξη των στόχων τους, καθώς θεωρούν ότι το επιθυμητό μέλλον μπορεί να επιτευχθεί και η αρνητική πραγματικότητα να αλλάξει και τους ωθεί στο να δράσουν προς αυτή την κατεύθυνση, ιδιαίτερα όταν οι προσδοκίες επιτυχίας που έχουν είναι υψηλές. Αν όμως, φαντάζονται απλά το επιθυμητό τους μέλλον ή την τωρινή αρνητική κατάσταση, η θέληση τους για την επίτευξη των στόχων τους δεν επηρεάζεται ή επηρεάζεται σε μικρό βαθμό (Oettingen, 2000;Oettingen, Pak, &Schnetter, 2001;Oettingen & Gollwitzer, 2010;Gollwitzer, Oettingen, Kirby, Duckworth, &Mayer, 2011;Kappes, Oettingen, &Pak, 2012;Oettingen, 2012;Gollwitzer, et al., 2018), καθώς στην πρώτη περίπτωση αδυνατούν να εντοπίσουν τα εμπόδια, ενώ στη δεύτερη, αδυνατούν να καθορίσουν τον τρόπο που πρέπει να δράσουν (Oettingen, et al., 2001;. Διαμορφώνει, δηλαδή, τη σχέση ανάμεσα στο παρόν και το μέλλον και τη σχέση ανάμεσα στην τρέχουσα πραγματικότητα και τα μέσα για να ξεπεραστεί, ενισχύοντάς την, αν οι προσδοκίες επιτυχίας είναι υψηλές ή αδυνατώντας την, αν δεν είναι. ...
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