Ever heard of the power of positivity? Well, science would beg to differ…

People who follow self-help mantra about the power of positive thinking are less or just as likely to achieve their goals than those who do not. This would apply to various aspirations, from quitting smoking to succeeding academically.

Specifically, merely fantasizing about attainting one’s goals fails to make them come to fruition. All is according to research conducted by Gabriele Oettingen, a professor of psychology at New York University (NYU).

Oettingen explains that positive thinking is often detrimental to progress, as it fails to take into account critical obstacles that might stand in the way. Instead, Oettingen offers the fantasy realization theory (FRT) as a scientifically backed recipe for wish fulfillment.

This theory argues that by contrasting one’s present circumstances to what he or she hopes from the future, a person will engage in either active goal pursuit or active goal disengagement. If one looks pragmatically at the present obstacles that stand in the way, he or she will know which goals are realistic and which should be shelved. Idly wishing for a better tomorrow fails to produce insight into how to realistically achieve goals and fails to determine which goals are too far-fetched in the first place.

“This makes perfect sense, if you think about it. Dreaming about a successful outcome in the future is pleasurable, leaving you with a nice, warm feeling of satisfaction. But in a workplace setting, that’s counterproductive. You’re less motivated to buck up and make the strong, persistent effort that is usually required to realize challenging but feasible wishes,” said Oettingen about her findings on the Harvard Business Review.

Instead, Oettingen explains that her research unanimously supports a prevailing mental contrasting tool called WOOP (Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan). Allow me to explain…

First, think of a wish that is attainable or realistic. Next, imagine what would happen if that wish were to come true – that sweet, sweet feeling of success. Then, think of what pesky obstacles are impeding on that goal. Finally, devise a carefully constructed plan for how to overcome that obstacle and start realizing your goal. WOOP, there it is!

Oettingen’s findings claim that the WOOP strategy has proven effective in multiple environments. For example, it has caused health care providers to become less stressed and more efficient and has helped college and high school students with time management. So, it is time to discard the mantra of the power of positivity and start living by the power of WOOP.

“Why does it work? Because the process either helps people understand their wishes are attainable, giving them energy and direction, heightening their engagement and prompting them to act; or it helps them realize their wishes are unrealistic, leading them to disengage and freeing them up to pursue other, more promising endeavors,” said Oettingen.


Thomas Freeman is Texas-transplant and aspiring journalist trying (but often failing) to navigate New York City. A current NYU student, Thomas also writes articles and manages media content for 20to30.

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