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I am critical of negative self-talk — I encourage people to forgive themselves for failures and focus on getting back on track — but I also don’t care for “visualization,” at least of the “power of positive thinking” stripe. I’ve seen first hand that daydreaming and detailed discussions of a hoped-for future can become a replacement for action.

I am also a big fan of self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is pretty much the opposite of visualization. Rather than imagining a successful future, self-efficacy is a state of belief that you can do something specific, a belief that is bolstered by actually doing things. It helps move the focus to where it belongs: concrete, specific, doable steps to get from where you are to where you’d like to be.

In this recent opinion piece in the New York Times, Gabriele Oettingen, a professor of psychology at New York University and the University of Hamburg, recommends a “contrast” form of visualization — first positive visualization, then visualizing the obstacles (some attention is required here so as not to end up dwelling on negative self-talk) — as a preparation for sitting down and making a plan for change.

Mental contrasting spurs us on when it makes sense to pursue a wish, and lets us abandon wishes more readily when it doesn’t, so that we can go after other, more reasonable ambitions.

This is similar to something called “decisional balance” in the transtheoretical model. This model invites you to make pros and cons lists, moving away from visualization per se to focus more on why something is a good idea. In both cases, the idea is to get a sense of what you are ready to tackle so you can identify the steps to get on with it.

Oettingen is rightly critical of self-help books like The Secret, which claims that by a “law of attraction,” the positivity (or negativity) of your thoughts will bring about positive or negative outcomes. These claims have a hold on people because they touch on our beliefs about what is possible, but they give us no real skills for adjusting and exploring those beliefs. They act more as a placebo that eases discomfort in a serious illness — distracting us from underlying issues that must be addressed. We don’t succeed by dreaming about how wonderful being successful would be. We succeed by doing, and that means identifying what we are ready for and taking steps to do it — even if the steps are small, and even if we end up doing some backtracking.

An excerpt from Oettingen’s book, with more examples, at New York Magazine. The book is called Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation.

Barbara Ehrenreich tackled the history and implications of the power of positive thinking in her engaging book, Bright Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America.

The image is from a blog entry by Yoni Freedhoff, MD, about the generally terrible weight-loss interventions that are described in the peer-reviewed literature, which give us headlines like this one — and some very misleading claims about what it takes to lose weight. You should read it.

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