I’m going to advance to candidacy this week, which means I will propose my dissertation to my committee of five faculty members. I’ve already submitted a written proposal, but at the end of the week I’ll give a talk about my plans for about 45 minutes or an hour. I know all five of my committee members, and they all have a rough idea of the work I’m proposing. If they agree that my work is sufficient, I will be a PhD candidate, one step away from having a PhD (the size of that step varies though, so don’t be fooled). I’m not expecting intimidating interrogating or yelling or finger pointing, but it’s an event I’ve prepared thoroughly for, and things that require deep preparation are usually also at least a little anxiety-provoking. Normally when I have events like this one, I picture myself excelling – if I tell myself that I can give a good talk, I will!
On my bus ride home one day recently, I was listening to The Hidden Brain podcast, and heard an episode called WOOP, There It Is. The psychologist being interviewed, Gabriele Oettingen, wrote a book called Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation.
Oettingen’s main point was that positive thinking can backfire. What’s positive thinking? She gave an example (both in the podcast and in this article she wrote for aeon) of an experiment she actually ran. College students came to her lab and imagined that they saw their current crush at a party. The researchers asked the students to fill in the rest of the scenario: what happened at this imaginary party after you saw your crush? Some students gave very positive endings to the story, imagining the start of a wonderful relationship, while others gave less romantic endings, for example that the crush started talking to someone else. Five months later, the people who had given the less positive responses were actually more likely to have attempted to strike up a relationship with their crush than the uber-positive dreamers.
Across a range of studies with diverse participants, Oettingen and her colleagues have found that people who think more positively about achieving their goals are actually less likely to achieve those goals than those who think less positively (more realistically?). These findings hold for professional, health, academic, and relational goals (detailed examples can be found on this site, WOOP my life).
Why is positive thinking so bad? Oettingen claims that it relaxes us and tricks our brain into thinking we’ve achieved our goal. This decreases our likelihood of actually acting on those goals. This relaxation is evident physiologically, she notes:
After having participants in one study positively fantasise about the future for as little as a few minutes, we observed declines in systolic blood pressure, a standard measure of a person’s energy level. These declines were significant: whereas smoking a cigarette will typically raise a person’s blood pressure by five or 10 points, engaging in positive fantasies lowers it by about half as much. (via aeon)
Without digging extensively into her papers, I’m not sure that I buy her claim here about the “mechanism” – that lower blood pressure is a sign that thinking positively calms us too much and makes us think at some level we’ve achieved the thing we wanted to and now are less likely to act on it. I’m skeptical, but I do believe her claim that there’s a way to evade dooming yourself by positive thinking.
Oettingen notes that if people engage in a process that she and her team call WOOP, they’ll actually fare better on a range of health, interpersonal, and academic measures than people who don’t WOOP it up. Here’s an example of how I might engage in WOOP for my upcoming talk:
- Wish: I hope that I will present my work to my dissertation committee clearly.
- Outcome: I imagine myself focused but relaxed enough that my words flow, confident with my material but not over-practiced; my committee is clearly engaged in the presentation I’m delivering
- Obstacle: Someone may ask me a question I don’t know how to respond to.
- Plan: If someone asks me something that stumps me, I can do any or all of these things: ask them to rephrase it; take a second, a swig of water, a deep breath, and give it my best shot; or simply say, “That’s a really great question that I’ll have to find out.”
The researchers have tested WOOP against similar exercises, like stating your intentions to do something positive (for example, I intend to be calm, focused, and avoid getting flustered when I give the talk), and in contexts as different as low-income mothers’ likelihood of attending a vocational program and stroke patients losing weight, WOOP produces the best outcomes.
So throughout this week I’ll be running a mini-experiment on myself, WOOPing about my advancement as often as possible, and hoping at the end of the week I’ll have one more piece of positive evidence in favor of WOOP.