The Negative Impact of Positive Thinking

We look at the negative implications of positive thinking and the impact on the outcomes that people achieve.

Visualise a positive outcome

An executive coach once asked a client what car he most wanted to own when his company was finally successful. The client responded that she had always fancied a Rolls Royce.

The coach’s response was to suggest that she every night before she fell asleep she should spend five minutes visualising herself behind the wheel of that Rolls Royce.

That way he assured her she would speed-up the development of her business and the delivery date of the car of her dreams.

Science doubts it

The trouble with these sorts of theories is that a scientist is likely to demonstrate that they just don’t work.

Heather Kappes and Gabriele Oettingen have identified that indulging in positive fantasies, about a dream outcome makes those outcomes less likely to become a reality.

It’s about the energy

Positive fantasies are say Kappes and Oettingen de-energising.

When people consummate a desired future it triggers the feeling that would come when the ambition had been achieved, which leads to a belief that the aim is easier to achieve than it is in reality.

Proving low energy

The scientists used measurements of blood pressure to indicate the level of energy the people involved in their studies had.

Lower blood pressure levels are an indication of low energy levels.

Four studies

Kappes and Oettingen Used four different studies to demonstrate how this works

1. High Heels

In the first study one group of women was asked to fantasize positively about looking good in high-heeled shoes, whilst a second was asked to think about the pros and cons of wearing high heels.

The first group showed lowering blood pressure levels than the women in the second group.

2. Essay Competition

In the second study two groups of students were asked to fantasize about their performance in an essay competition.

The first group fantasized about being successful, whilst the second were instructed to think less positively about their prospects.

Members of the first group reported feeling less energized than the people in the second group.

3. Next week’s goals

When asked to fantasize positively about expectations of events in the forthcoming week participants reported feeling less energized.

A week later they had achieved fewer of their objectives than a control group who had been asked to day-dream freely about the coming week.

4. Exam success

The final study showed the importance of context.

When the positive thinking is focused on a pressing need the result are particularly de-energizing.

In an experiment that has been described as elaborate participants were told they were participating in a taste test were asked to not eat or drink for several hours, and then eat some crackers.

For these ‘starving’ participants it was a positive fantasy about a large glass of ice-cold water that results in them being de-energized.

A control group who were asked to fantasize about exam success that led to their feelings of being de-energized.

Ruling out distractions

Significant effort was made by the researchers to eliminate other causes of the de-energized feelings;

They ruled out the effect of irritation, concluding that negative fantasies are by definition negative in nature, and that some fantasies being easier to create than others.

They also used a neutral fantasy condition that allowed them to establish that positive fantasies are de-energizing instead of negative fantasies being energizing.

Mirage affect

If there is a benefit to positive fantasies it might be in a survival situation. When imagining food or drink that is not available could switch on a low energy mindset that could conserve energy and make survival more likely.

If the prospect of having to complete a task fills someone with dread, having a positive fantasy about the outcome may reduce anxiety and make it easier for the person to do the job.

Fantasies are less positive

Happes and Oettingen concluded that positive fantasies are likely to lower someones changes of obtaining their goals.

Positive fantasies do not, they said promote achievement. They are likely to sap people of energy and reduce their confidence levels.

Fantasies that question whether an objective can be achieved and encourage people to visualize the various obstacles that they will have to overcome are probably going to be more successful at generating the energy that will enable the individual or team to achieve their objectives.

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