The Powerlessness of Positive Thinking

The New Yorker:

Since publishing “The Secret,” in 2006, the Australian author Rhonda Byrne has been writing self-help manifestos based on the idea that people who think positive thoughts are rewarded with happiness, wealth, influence, wisdom, and success. In November, 2013, she published “Hero,” the fourth book in the series. The book showcases the wisdom of twelve heroes—businesspeople, sports stars, writers, and philanthropists. Byrne’s idea isn’t new—it’s been a mainstay among greeting-card companies, motivational speakers, and school teachers for decades—but she’s become one of its most visible prophets. “The way to change a lack of belief is very simple,” Byrne writes. “Begin thinking the opposite thoughts to what you’ve been thinking about yourself: that you can do it, and that you have everything within you to do it.”

Burkeman is onto something. According to a great deal of research, positive fantasies may lessen your chances of succeeding. In one experiment, the social psychologists Gabriele Oettingen and Doris Mayer asked eighty-three German students to rate the extent to which they “experienced positive thoughts, images, or fantasies on the subject of transition into work life, graduating from university, looking for and finding a job.” Two years later, they approached the same students and asked about their post-college job experiences. Those who harbored positive fantasies put in fewer job applications, received fewer job offers, and ultimately earned lower salaries. The same was true in other contexts, too. Students who fantasized were less likely to ask their romantic crushes on a date and more likely to struggle academically. Hip-surgery patients also recovered more slowly when they dwelled on positive fantasies of walking without pain.

Read the whole story: The New Yorker

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Comments

It’s difficult to understand the ultimate purpose of the “either or” debate that continues against “positive” thinking.

Conflating the message of the much derided Secret with the positive psychology movement seems like more like headline grabbing than a reasoned discussion.

This week the New York Times reported on the extensive use of “positive” imagery by the US and other Olympic teams. They imagine themselves winning by pro-actively tracing every step in the process, including enjoying the victory.
Should they stop? How should they imagine themselves performing?

Most people engage in ample mental negative dress rehearsal. Your implication seems to be that too much positive thinking lowers motivation because of a reliance on “faith” or magical thinking.

What you don’t mention are the many studies that show the toll “negative” emotions (generated by negative thinking) take on the body,

Thinking positively doesn’t mean we deny that “bad things happen,” it isn’t either-or.
http://intentionalworkplace.com/2012/08/09/thinking-about-positive-thinking/

It is not likely ‘either or’. It is multidimensional. Using elite performance examples overlooks the fact that ’cause’ lies less in thinking and more in total effort. Positive thinking is just more effort dedicated to elite performance. Negative thinking is associated with less effort which leads to lower performance. That some positive thinkers get ‘worse results’ is sort of a good control group demonstrating that it is total effort that leads to increases in performance and not simply positive thinking.

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