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Summary: Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation by Gabriele Oettingen

“Positive fantasies led to lower energy levels, which in turn predicted lower accomplishment” – Gabriele Oettingen

Gabriele Oettingen has studied the effect of positive visualization for several decades, and she’s uncovered some surprising findings:

  • College students who visualized themselves receiving a good grade on a psychology 101 midterm received a lower grade than students who didn’t participate in the positive visualization exercise.
  • College graduates who visualized themselves getting a high paying job received fewer job offers and earned less money than graduates who didn’t complete the positive visualization exercise.

When you allow yourself to fantasize about a positive result in the future, you fool your mind into thinking that you’ve already achieved that result. If the mind thinks you’ve already reached your goal, it won’t be motivated to take action towards attaining that goal.


Psychology professor Gabriele Oettingen offers an antidote to common beliefs about positive thinking, goals, desires and the human mind. Some of the information she shares will be familiar to those who read actively in these fields, but much of it will be new, especially to the average reader. For that reader, though, this could have been a bit shorter, perhaps by tightening the accounts of the discovery process. (Given that, busy readers might want to focus first on Chapter 6.) Oettingen walks you through the “Wish-Outcome-Obstacle-Plan” (or WOOP) process as a path to logical reasoning free of over-optimism. Her exploration will help you approach life more realistically and get out of your own way. We recommend her research on positivity to anyone who’s trying to reach a goal and everyone interested in the workings of the human mind.

Book Summary: Rethinking Positive Thinking - Inside the New Science of Motivation


  • Many people believe positive thinking helps you reach your goals.
  • In fact, by making you relax, positive thinking can get in the way of achievement.
  • Positive fantasies can be useful in situations you can’t change.
  • However, positive fantasies distort your view of reality and send you in search of information that will confirm those fantasies.
  • The strategy of “mental contrasting” makes positive fantasies more useful by connecting them to reality.
  • Use “WOOP” to enlist your “nonconscious mind” to help you reach your goals.
  • W stands for “wish”: Imagine what you wish for.
  • O is “outcome”: Think about the positive benefits of achieving your wish.
  • The second O is “obstacle”: Think about what blocks your path.
  • P is “plan”: Make a plan to overcome obstacles and reach your goal. Implement an “if-then” planning structure: If X happens, then you will do Z.

Author Gabriele Oettingen has found that women who participate in a six-minute visualization exercise lower their blood pressure by 3-5 points (mimicking the calming effects of smoking half a cigarette).

“Positive fantasies might make us feel electrified for an instant, but at the very least, this feeling does not correspond to what is going on in our bodies.” – Garbriele Oettingen

However, positive fantasies are helpful if you want to decide which goal to pursue. By fantasying you can rapidly simulate several future experiences and select the future that is most worth struggling for. Therefore, you should not scrap the practice of positive thinking.

Here is how you can use positive thinking to envision the future you want and RAISE your motivation to attain that vision:


“What do I want, and why is it reasonable?” –> allow yourself to see it Visualize yourself making progress in one of the following areas of your life: physical health, financial security, key relationships, or the problem you are most concerned with now. Then focus on one action you could take today to move you closer to that vision. Make sure the action is feasible and completely within your control.

Examples: go for a run after work, eat one serving of vegetables with every meal, cook dinner for my partner, etc.


“What powerful emotion do I associate with getting it? –> allow yourself to feel it Focus on the greatest benefit that will flow from completing your wish today. Allow yourself to feel a peak emotion associated with completion your intended action.

Examples: balanced, proud, relieved, connected, energized, satisfied, etc.


“Why is it going to be hard?” –> see yourself struggling to get it Focus on the biggest internal obstacle you need to overcome today to fulfill your wish. If your goal is feasible, then the only thing that can hold you back from achieving is an internal limitation. This means being honest you’re yourself and preempting the excuses that you’ll come up with during the day to avoid taking action.

Examples: got distracted, too busy, too tired, procrastinated too much, couldn’t resist, etc.


“How do I know I can still do it?” –> see yourself overcoming a struggle to achieve it Focus on your response to this obstacle. Consider what has worked in the past, or what you think could work based on advice from a credible resource. Then think: “If I notice the obstacle, then I will…[the action you will take to move past the obstacle]”

Examples: “If I come home tired from work, then I will put on my running shoes and walk outside.” OR “If I experience cravings for junk food, then I will go for a walk and drink a large glass of water.”

Instead of fantasizing about a future goal, start WOOPing your goals. Start by visualizing what you want, then anticipate what might hold you back, and come up with an if-then plan to neutralize those internal struggles. By WOOPing your goal you’ll remain motivated to take action, and be more likely to actually experience your optimistic vision of the future.

“Participants in our studies show important, long-term changes in their behavior—such as eating more vegetables, exercising more, drinking less—after as little as a single WOOP session…It’s a living tool that you can use in your everyday life. Practiced daily over an extended period of time, WOOP enables you to not only solve specific problems or wishes, but live a life that is balanced, meaningful, and generally happy.” – Gabriele Oettingen


The “Cult of Optimism”

Books like The Secret and contestants’ attitudes on reality competition shows like American Idol reflect a common worldview – that imagining your “deepest wishes” makes them more likely to come true. This reflects a larger cult of optimism pervading contemporary culture. Pop culture champions “dreaming and dreamers,” and politicians all tout the “American Dream,” which promises success to everyone. These beliefs rest on the premise that thinking positively and focusing on the future can carry you through a tough today and garner superior results tomorrow. Considering the strength of these sunny beliefs and how common they are, especially in the West, you may wonder if they are true and what effect they have on people’s lives.

“Positive fantasies hinder business performance, and…much economic value is lost as a result.”

Past studies of optimism suggested it is usually well founded. Martin Seligman, who started “the positive psychology movement,” argued that people are likely to base their optimistic beliefs about the future “on past experiences of success.” In this model, optimism is simply logical. Those who have performed well in one area expect to keep succeeding. However, some people visualize successful futures without any foundation of past success. They use positive dreams to get by, easing their daily frustration in situations where change isn’t likely or even possible.

“A series of studies has revealed mental contrasting to be an effective strategy for fulfilling wishes – certainly far more effective than merely indulging in dreams about a happy future.”

When people do not make changes, and instead engage in “positive fantasies,” the result is similar in disturbing ways. Women in a weight-loss study who engaged in these fantasies lost a lot less weight than women who didn’t fantasize. A variety of later studies confirmed the effect of this sort of fantasizing: Rather than motivating people to move toward the goals they imagined, it made them too relaxed. They behaved as if the fantasies were already real, and then didn’t act to create them. Positive fantasies can have negative results.

Benefits and Hazards of Dreaming

If fantasies have such clear negative effects, are they all bad? Should you try to live your life free of dreaming? Some schools of psychology say exactly that. Freud argued that fantasies might give temporary relief, but in the long run, they keep you from full psychological development and lead to neuroses. That would mean you’re better off avoiding them. Humanistic psychology argued a related position that you should entertain only “thoughts corresponding to reality,” the only kind of thoughts that lead to self-actualization.

“Beyond the effects on nonconscious associations…I also thought mental contrasting would work by affecting the meaning of a reality as an obstacle in people’s conscious and nonconscious minds.”

These positions don’t give sufficient weight to the role of fantasies as a lifeline for people in irksome, unchangeable situations, such as people stuck in difficult stages of a relationship or communities facing political oppression they cannot fight. The pressure to meet a sharp need might lead you to dream of finding a solution. Such dreams – when people properly understand them in the right context – can lead to positive action. Dreaming doesn’t help you meet a goal that requires considerable energy and active commitment. But, it can help if you have to wait or are in a situation genuinely beyond your control. A fantasy can give you a moment of pleasure when you’re depressed, and it can be a risk-free way of exploring possible choices.

“Discoveries, insights, revelations…happen to people during and immediately after mental contrasting.”

Dreams don’t move you to take immediate action toward your goals. In a study using systolic blood pressure to indicate subjects’ levels of energy or motivation, the act of entertaining positive fantasies lowered this reading. As later studies confirmed, precisely because dreams are pleasant and relaxing, they sap a person’s energy to act. Such fantasies bring about the phenomenon of “mental attainment”: Spending time fantasizing about something makes you feel as if you already achieved it. Dreams also affect how you view the world. After you entertain a positive fantasy, you perceive the world as if you’ve now met your goals. Sustaining this pleasant state requires filtering information from the outside world. You distort reality to live in your “dream world.”

Making Dreams Come True

If dreaming on its own can’t help people achieve their goals and, instead, moves them further from reality, how can you reach a goal? To convert a fantasy into reality, use “mental contrasting,” the process of following the fantasy with concrete action that puts you in touch with what you need to do in the real world. Mental contrasting calls for action. It bypasses the relaxing power of dreams and enlists them as active fuel for change.

“Just a few minutes of mental contrasting helped students overcome an anxious and unjustified fantasy and approach the object of their fears.”

Researchers compared simply fantasizing against combining fantasizing and various forms of mental contrasting. The result was surprising: Mental contrasting motivated action only from people who thought they had “a good chance of success.” This is a positive finding; you don’t want to get excited about or act on every wish that crosses your mind. You want to become passionate about plans you can attain, albeit with effort. Psychologists who research motivation fail to consider “how to get people to disengage,” even when that is what the situation requires.

“Mental contrasting lets you finally engage in viable, heartfelt wishes with everything you’ve got.”

Mental contrasting has objective benefits. For example, students who thought they could achieve a goal – and who used mental contrasting – worked harder, according to their estimates and their teachers’ judgment. You can use mental contrasting to dislodge social fears and negative beliefs about yourself, and to decide when you should walk away from one dream and pursue another.

“Belief in the power of optimism rests on a simple idea: By looking at the future, we can hang tough and do our best in the present.”

Working toward your goals can be hard. Consider how much companies spend coaching their employees, or how much effort people devote to changing behaviors like smoking. Mental contrasting works by engaging the “nonconscious mind.” It changes how you see things on a level below positive thinking. It creates real change because it connects your “present reality” with “successful wish fulfillment.” Mental contrasting works when you think about the future and then about reality. It doesn’t work as well if you think about reality and then about the future.

“Unlike more conventional approaches, WOOP also helps people disengage from wishes that aren’t practical so they are free to pursue smarter, more realistic goals.”

Mental contrasting associates obstacles with “the instrumental behavior” you must use to get past them. People who practice mental contrasting undergo “actual, observable changes in behavior.” Mental contrasting proves useful in unexpected ways, like helping people accept and retain negative feedback they need to learn from their errors. Students who used mental contrasting were better at “processing negative feedback” and translating it to action. They saw themselves in a more positive light than those who didn’t use this tool. Use mental contrasting to identify and correct false perceptions of yourself, like dealing with times when you’re stuck in the past.

“The Magic of WOOP”

To make a change in your life, like reaching a goal or making a wish come true, use a process that synthesizes current research and convert it into a step-by-step routine that you can follow anywhere, any time. That synthesizing routine is WOOP, which stands for “Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan.” Using WOOP takes time and effort, but once you know and understand it, you can go through its checklist pretty quickly, bringing all levels of your mind to bear on attaining what you want. Keep a blank checklist on a piece of paper or index card with W-O-O-P written from top to bottom. Fill in the blanks after each letter in four stages:

  1. Wish – Identify a “wish or concern.” Unlike some change techniques that ask you to spell out specific, focused goals, WOOP suggests that you start by relaxing and thinking about the wish that’s most crucial to you right now. Visualize it; hold it in place.
  2. Outcome – Envision the positive result you want to create, the benefit your wish will produce. Let your thoughts circulate until you identify this outcome. Give your mind “free rein” to go wherever it needs to find this pleasant end product. Take as much time as you need to reach a defined vision.
  3. Obstacle – Once you’re clear about the result you want, “open your eyes again” and identify any barriers to reaching your goal. First, look inward. Do any of your qualities, beliefs or attributes stand in your way? What keeps you from solving your problem? Do specific thought patterns interfere? Do you have behaviors that work against you? Identify anything inside yourself that could be working against you. Stay in this stage as you take self-reflection to a deep level. Your obstacle might be concrete and specific, like spending too much time online, or general and diffuse, like feeling anxious. This stage requires honesty. It calls on you to stop distracting yourself by looking outward, not inward, for answers. When you reach this state of clarity, take the next step.
  4. Plan – Identify “one thought or action you can take”; hold that in your mind. Stay with this reflection until you determine what action would be most effective. Pinpoint “when and where the obstacle will next occur,” and formulate “an if-then plan,” saying if X happens, I will do Z. Be specific. Know the best action to take if the most likely or crucial obstacle appears. Sharpen and focus your if-then statement, and repeat it.

Using WOOP

Use the WOOP process anywhere, in any situation that gives you time and space to focus. You can do WOOP as a mental exercise or write it down. Most people get in trouble in its last stage, planning. They let the specific if-then formula mutate into something bigger that doesn’t work. Your plan depends on a specific situation manifesting or a specific obstacle appearing, so you can take the specific action you planned to overcome it and move toward your goal. This structure never changes, and “WOOP always works the same way,” no matter what your wish or in what context you apply it. You can use WOOP when you’re struggling in an area, but you also can use it to spur ongoing growth in a realm where you already excel. You can use WOOP to build better health, improve your relationships, and generate professional advancement and opportunities.

“You can use WOOP in all life circumstances, not only if you are struggling or feel you need improvement.”

The outcomes you’ll experience when you apply WOOP will vary. You can’t know in advance exactly what you’ll find or learn. This is because people seldom directly examine their obstacles, and doing so generates emotional responses. The crucial distinction between WOOP and other approaches to change is your willingness to provoke these emotions.

“WOOP always works the same, no matter the time frame you’re working with or the kind of wish you have.”

Many change strategies argue that you can change if you can shift even one among three factors: 1) Change your attitude to see the value of a new behavior; 2) “change the need or social pressure” you feel about new behaviors; or 3) learn more, and change because you have more confidence. Studies show these factors often don’t lead to real change. People working to produce change in education also tried other approaches revolving around goals and related beliefs. “Industrial and organizational psychologists” emphasized the value of “SMART goals” (“Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-Bound”). These methods try to produce change by shifting your “conscious belief or goal system.”

“Many people who lack control over their lives have endured by imagining idealized outcomes.”

WOOP differs fundamentally from these strategies. It initiates your “nonconscious effects” to build motivation. And it helps you “disengage from wishes that aren’t practical.” WOOP helps you go after achievable goals and desires.

Making WOOP Work

You can integrate WOOP into all areas of your life, and use it successfully over the long term. WOOP can accompany you as a guide and a tool to make you more confident. To “get a visceral experience” of how WOOP works, start with a “deep-seated wish” you’ve been carrying for some time. Then address a “subtler, more complex wish” that is harder to discuss with others. Using WOOP even once often leads to uncovering deeper wishes or in grounding you in a more specific desire you can actually pursue.

“You would be ill-advised to indulge in dreams about achieving your goals and then assume you’re well on a path to success.”

For example, an alcoholic might want to stop drinking, but could be unable to generate “positive fantasies” about sobriety. When you hit such an obstacle, pause and ask what you really want. Considering that question, the alcoholic might be able to identify a deeper goal-driven wish, like becoming a “better parent” or having “a better relationship.” These wishes might be more energizing and can shift the process. Drinking is now an obstacle to a more profound goal, and the person can address it with concrete plans.

“We would be wrong to jettison our dreams, just as we are wrong to blindly assume that simply dreaming something can make it so.”

Start practicing WOOP with short-term goals. Identify a desire you’d like to act on within 24 hours. Once you get comfortable with WOOP, develop your “WOOP habit.” Find a time to practice WOOP daily. Some people start or end their days with WOOP. Others build it into time that would otherwise feel idle, like during their commute. For example, if you’re a writer and you have specific, planned work sessions, start your work with WOOP. Regular practice will help you program yourself so WOOP will work better for you.

About the author

Gabriele Oettingen is a professor of psychology at New York University and the University of Hamburg. She has published more than 100 articles or chapters on the effects of future thought.



In “Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation,” Gabriele Oettingen, a prominent psychologist, challenges the widely-held belief that positive thinking is the key to success and happiness. Through a thorough examination of the latest research in psychology and neuroscience, Oettingen presents a compelling argument for a more nuanced understanding of motivation and its relationship with positive thinking. In this review, we will delve into the main arguments and insights presented in the book, and evaluate their impact on our understanding of motivation and its role in personal growth.


The book begins by highlighting the pitfalls of positive thinking, which can lead to negative consequences such as complacency, ignoring potential obstacles, and blinding ourselves to reality. Oettingen argues that the traditional approach to positive thinking, which focuses on visualizing success and affirmations, can actually hinder our ability to achieve our goals. Instead, she proposes a new approach called “mental contrasting,” which involves exploring both the positive and negative aspects of a situation.

Oettingen explains that mental contrasting can help individuals develop a more realistic understanding of their goals and the challenges they face, leading to increased motivation and effort. She also discusses the role of cognitive dissonance in motivation, suggesting that we are more likely to take action when we experience discomfort or dissonance between our current state and our desired state.

The book also explores the concept of “the fantasy gap,” which refers to the tendency for our minds to wander and create unrealistic expectations about the future. Oettingen argues that this gap can lead to disappointment and demotivation, and suggests strategies for bridging the gap by focusing on the present moment and taking small steps towards our goals.

Finally, Oettingen discusses the importance of “self-systems” in motivation, suggesting that we are more likely to achieve our goals when we have a clear sense of purpose and identity. She provides practical advice on how to develop a strong self-system, including setting realistic goals, monitoring progress, and seeking social support.


“Rethinking Positive Thinking” is a thought-provoking and well-researched book that challenges readers to reassess their approach to motivation and success. Oettingen’s arguments are convincing and well-supported by the latest scientific research, making the book an invaluable resource for anyone looking to improve their motivation and achieve their goals.

The book’s greatest strength lies in its ability to offer practical advice and strategies that can be applied to real-life situations. Oettingen’s suggestions for mental contrasting, bridging the fantasy gap, and developing a strong self-system are insightful and actionable, making the book a useful tool for anyone looking to enhance their motivation and achievement.

One potential limitation of the book is that it may challenge readers’ preconceptions and beliefs about positive thinking. Some readers may find it difficult to accept that positive thinking can be ineffective or even harmful, and may initially resist the idea of adopting a more nuanced approach to motivation. However, Oettingen’s clear and concise writing style and the abundance of scientific evidence provided in the book help to mitigate this limitation.

Main Arguments:

  • The Limits of Positive Thinking: Oettingen argues that an overemphasis on positive thinking can have negative consequences, such as leading to unrealistic expectations and decreased motivation when faced with obstacles. She contends that a more balanced approach to thinking is necessary, one that acknowledges both the potential benefits and limitations of positive thinking.
  • The Role of Unpleasant Thoughts: Oettingen challenges the common notion that positive thinking must always be associated with happiness and well-being. Instead, she suggests that unpleasant thoughts and emotions can play a crucial role in motivation and goal-oriented behavior. By acknowledging and processing these uncomfortable thoughts, individuals can gain a more realistic understanding of their goals and the steps needed to achieve them.
  • The Power of Wishful Thinking: Oettingen explores the concept of “wishful thinking,” which she defines as the tendency to imagine a desirable outcome while ignoring the limitations and obstacles that stand in the way. While this type of thinking can sometimes be useful, Oettingen argues that it can also lead to disappointment and demotivation when the desired outcome is not achieved. Instead, she advocates for a more balanced approach that acknowledges both the potential benefits and limitations of wishful thinking.
  • The Importance of Emotions: Oettingen emphasizes the crucial role that emotions play in motivation and decision-making. She argues that emotions are not just passive reactions to external stimuli but instead play an active role in shaping our goals and actions. By acknowledging and regulating our emotions, individuals can gain a deeper understanding of their motivations and make more informed decisions.
  • The Role of Expectations: Oettingen explores the complex relationship between expectations and motivation. She argues that unrealistic expectations can lead to decreased motivation and demotivation, while realistic expectations can foster a sense of purpose and direction. By setting realistic goals and expectations, individuals can cultivate a more balanced and sustainable approach to motivation.

Impact and Significance:

Oettingen’s book offers a groundbreaking perspective on motivation and its relationship with positive thinking. By challenging the commonly held beliefs about positive thinking, she provides a more nuanced understanding of the complex psychological processes that drive motivation and goal-oriented behavior. Her insights have significant implications for various fields, including education, leadership, and mental health.


  • Provides a balanced perspective on the role of positive thinking in achieving success
  • Offers practical strategies for setting and achieving goals
  • Emphasizes the importance of self-reflection and introspection


  • May be too focused on the negative aspects of goal-setting, potentially leading readers to become overly pessimistic
  • Some readers may find the book’s focus on mental contrasting and negative emotions to be too abstract or theoretical

Target Audience:

The target audience for “Rethinking Positive Thinking” is likely individuals who are looking for a more balanced approach to achieving success. This book may be particularly useful for individuals who have found that traditional positive thinking strategies have not been effective for them, or who are looking for a more nuanced understanding of the role of emotions and mindset in motivation.


Overall, “Rethinking Positive Thinking” is a thought-provoking and insightful book that challenges readers to reconsider their assumptions about motivation and positive thinking. By acknowledging the limitations of positive thinking and embracing a more balanced approach, individuals can cultivate a more sustainable and realistic approach to motivation. Oettingen’s book is a valuable resource for anyone seeking to understand the complex psychological processes that drive motivation and goal-oriented behavior.

In conclusion, “Rethinking Positive Thinking” is an engaging and informative book that offers a fresh perspective on the science of motivation. The book’s focus on mental contrasting, cognitive dissonance, the fantasy gap, and self-systems provides readers with a comprehensive understanding of the complex factors that influence our motivation and success. The practical advice and strategies offered in the book make it an invaluable resource for anyone looking to improve their motivation and achieve their goals.


For anyone interested in understanding the complexities of motivation and positive thinking, this book is a must-read. While it may not be a light or easy read, the insights and perspectives presented are invaluable for anyone seeking to cultivate a more balanced and sustainable approach to motivation.

Alex Lim is a certified book reviewer and editor with over 10 years of experience in the publishing industry. He has reviewed hundreds of books for reputable magazines and websites, such as The New York Times, The Guardian, and Goodreads. Alex has a master’s degree in comparative literature from Harvard University and a PhD in literary criticism from Oxford University. He is also the author of several acclaimed books on literary theory and analysis, such as The Art of Reading and How to Write a Book Review. Alex lives in London, England with his wife and two children. You can contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Website | Twitter | Facebook

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