Updated: Aug 12, 2020
Gabrielle Oettingen is a professor of psychology at New York University, widely know for her research in how people think about their future, or the future in general.
In a chapter in her book, Handbook Of Behavioral Approaches To Self-Regulation, she very convincingly lays out the problem with a belief in positive thinking, in order to reach ones desired future.
First, the book establishes, from a wide array of studies, that a predictive marker of taking action towards a desired future, can be measured in terms of heightened systolic blood pressure. Out of several physiological markers of bodily mobilization, SBP seems to most reliably predict behavioral change. Wether an organism takes action towards something, can be conceptualized as wether the current need state of an organism is currently unfulfilled. A need state measures certain evolutionary drives towards food, procreation, social engagement and more. As people feel these drives are currently being unmet, the brain will activate the autonomous nervous system, which starts to mobilize the bodily resources needed to take action towards ones needs - one of them being the increase of systolic blood pressure, a side effect of the hear pumping blood more heavily to different parts of the body.
The question then, is wether positive fantasizes about the future either increases or decreases this physiological drive - indicated foremost by increased SBP - which would indicate behavioral intent towards realizing the desired future. In multiple studies, the answer here is consistent. Indulging in positive fantasies about the future decreases SBP - the stronger the more present the current drive in which one fantasizes about.
A second question is then how to go about actually taking action towards these fantasies. The Fantasy Realisation Theory posits that there are four modes of approaching a desired future:
Indulging in the desired future (mentally of course)
Brooding on the present reality
Contrasting the desired future to present obstacles
Mentally elaborating reality before the future
Of these four modes, mental contrasting the desired future first, with the present reality, is proposed to be the best way for people to take action towards the desired future, by identifying concrete hinders for potentially pursuing the future vision. This has a further energy expenditure benefit of actually allocating resources to realistic objectives. Across multiple studies, this finding has been replicated. Wether measuring consequent effort by behavioral, physiological, or cognitive markers, mental contrasting seems the best way of people taking consistent action towards realizable future selfs. Furthermore, other studies can also confirm that this action taking is mediated by SBP - meaning mental constrastin leads consistently to heightened SBP and an activation of the autonomous nervous system, which in term leads to action - if the expectancy of the future is high enough deemed by the mental contrasting.
A quite amazing find as well regarding mental contrasting, was that it promoted both goal-directed behaviors but also non-related behaviors. It was as if people were energized to act in a sort of valued direction, and once they did, had some spare energy to use for other tasks. In clinical practice, this is closely linked to what is called "behavioral activation", which is a validated part of treatment for people with depression.
Why does mental contrasting work better than simply envisioning a positive future? The answer is again hinted at when looking on how it affects our physiological arousal. Oettingen states that fantasizing about the future is a form of soothing-behavior in which the subject for a brief moment "lives" in this future state, decreasing anxiety temporarily but also decreasing the physiological drive to restore a balanced need state. It is nice to think about great things happening in the future, just as it is nice to eat a chocolate cake sometimes. But it is not a long term solution - even if some chocolate now and then isn't too bad.
This has interesting implications for designing behavioral change interventions. In order to establish lasting meaningful behaviors, this research should be utilized in a much higher degree. Shockingly, though this research har been known for quite some time and consistently garners positive results, there are almost no online platforms for behavioral change within the eHealth sector, that uses mental contrasting at all - yet alone with scientific rigor.
With one exception though. You can probably guess which one.
Sevincer, A. T., & Oettingen, G. (2015). Future thought and the self-regulation of energization. In Handbook of biobehavioral approaches to self-regulation (pp. 315–329). New York, NY: Springer.