Research Summaries: Mental contrasting facilitates academic performance in school children

Today’s research summary builds on the work of Gabrielle Oettingen on WOOP/mental contrasting with implementation intentions. The paper [pdf] is co-authored by Angela Duckworth et al and successfully demonstrates the utility and incremental benefit of mental contrasting over mere positive thinking in achieving desired outcomes.

The Power of Positive Thinking (EP)

The Power of Positive Thinking (EP) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

  1. When one wants to achieve goals, then the first step is to clearly articulate the desired goal. It has been shown that merely having a goal vs not having a clear goal is instrumental in goal achievement.   Another process that is usually implicated in successful goal achievement is positive thinking, where you clearly visualize the positive outcomes from having achieved the goal.
  2. The exercise ‘Best possible future selves’ is predicated on the same premise that visualizing a better future self leads to increase in hope and optimism and positive striving to achieve the goal.
  3. In popular parlance though, positive thinking is equated with not thinking about any negatives at all, including the possible obstacles that may lie in the path. This obsession with just the positive aspects of future, to the ignoring of the current reality, may have detrimental effects as one’s commitment to the goal may not change with mere positive future visualizing.
  4. Mental contrasting is a technique whereby a positive future outcome visualization is contrasted with current reality and the client encouraged to think about internal obstacles within them that may hamper the goal achievement.
  5. Goal commitment is hypothesized to be made of two components: Goal desirability( which apparently does not change with either mental contrasting or  positive future visualizing) and Goal feasibility (goal commitment increases in mental contrasting if the goal is considered of high feasibility as the current reality/obstacles become surmountable in one’s mind’s eyes;  on the other hand if goal feasibility is low then goal commitment becomes less as the obstacles seem insurmountable and the goal is disengaged from while doing mental contrasting)
  6. While the exact mechanism of how mental contrasting works in not known, it is believed to work by increasing efforts (towards overcoming surmountable obstacles) , by using better strategies ( for example to remain focused and not get distracted) or by seeking help from others.
  7. The current studies consisted of making the class 2, 3 or 5 grade students learn foreign language words, and this learning was incentivized by promises of candy bag or small monetary reward (5 $). The gap between learning and recall varied from 2 weeks to 4 days. There were two conditions:  in the positive future condition, the students filled out a section in which they listed the best possible outcomes from having mastered the foreign vocabulary words. In the mental contrasting condition, the students besides writing the best possible outcome, also reflected and wrote, what within them may prevent their achieving the goal of mastering the foreign language vocabulary.
  8. The foreign language vocabulary task was something that was within the capability of the students and was thus considered a task with high goal feasibility and thus should have led to greater goal commitment in the mental contrasting condition.
  9. Across two studies they found that indeed there was significant difference in recall of foreign language words between the two conditions, with mental contrasting leading to better learning/ recall.
  10. One big limitation of the study , which is acknowledged by authors in the limitations section, is that they did not include a neutral control condition in which  neither positive future visualization nor mental contrasting was used. It would have been interesting to know how big an impact positive visualization has and how big an impact mental contrasting has over and above that.
  11. This paper is of immense practical utility as it showed that mental contrasting can also be used in group settings and is effective with minimum instructions and for a common goal.  This enables tools like WOOP which build on this research to be extended to group settings. I myself use WOOP in my work with school children and have found it very useful.

Overall it is a pretty decent paper [pdf] that shows the benefits of mental contrasting over mere positive future visualization.

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