Mental Contrasting – A Visualisation Technique that Actually Works
Want an easy tool that helps you achieve your goals and wishes - backed by science?
I’ll reveal it to you in this article.
But first, we have to look at a common way many people make achieving their dreams and goals LESS likely…
So You’ve Heard About Visualization Before, Right?
Chances are you’ve heard of this before:
To achieve a certain goal for your future, you must first visualize it in your mind. You must see your goal as already complete in your mind and this will help you achieve the goal in real life.
In other words, you must positively fantasize about it. You must see and feel how awesome your future will be with that goal already achieved.
That’s kinda like “Law of Attraction 101” or “The Secret 101”.
If you want to drive a Ferrari, you must see and feel yourself driving that Ferrari in your imagination. If you want to become a world chess champion, you must see yourself winning and celebrating that championship, and see other people congratulate you on your victory.
The premise is simple:
Positively fantasize (visualize) about a goal or a dream and you are more likely to achieve that outcome.
This technique gets advocated in almost EVERY self-help book ever written.
The only problem is…
It simply does NOT work.
In fact, if we just positively fantasize about a goal, we are LESS likely to achieve that goal…
What the NEW Science of Motivation Teaches Us About Visualization
The new research of goal-achievement and motivation is clear:
Merely positively fantasizing about having achieved our goal DECREASES our chances of achieving that goal.
What. The. FVCK!?
YES. That’s what I thought too when I learned about this in Gabriele Oettingen’s book ‘Rethinking Positive Thinking’.
She’s a leading scientist in the field of motivation and goal-achievement and she has proven in study after study that positively fantasizing about a goal makes you LESS likely to achieve that goal.
In one of her studies she measured how much weight women lost over the course of a year.
The results were ASTONISHING.
Women who had strong positive fantasies and visualized themselves as already slim, looking great in a bikini, easily resisting junk foods, looking attractive etc. lost 24 pounds less than those women who pictured themselves more negatively.
I shall repeat that:
The women who positively fantasized lost 24 pounds LESS.
And these results were replicated study after study.
Whether it’s getting a good job, starting a relationship with your crush, or getting good grades at school… merely positively fantasizing about the end result makes achieving the end result LESS likely.
“But visualizing about positive fantasies feels great. How can that be harmful?”
Yes, it feels great indeed.
It feels like a short-term pleasure hit.
Here’s how Gabriele Oettingen explains it in one of her studies:
“Four weeks later, we checked in on the students and measured their depression levels again using the same questionnaire. We found that the more positive students’ fantasies were, the more depressed they had become. However, we also found that dreaming more frequently had corresponded to less depression at the time of the dreaming itself. Dreaming about a positive future seemed to protect against sadness in the short term but promote it over the long term. It coincided with a short-term hit of pleasure that ultimately wore off and predicted increased depression. [emphasis added]”
So yes, positive fantasies feel great in the moment.
However, they make you worse off in the future. (In this case you would feel more depressed in the future.)
Let’s see why…
Why Merely Fantasizing About a Better Future Does NOT Work
Here’s a cool fact about our mind:
It can’t tell the difference between actual reality or a visualized reality.
As you’re dreaming about a brighter future, your mind believes that you’ve already attained that future.
That’s why positive fantasies feel so good.
And it’s exactly why they make you less motivated.
When your mind thinks you’ve already achieved your goal, then why should you feel energized or motivated? You already have what you want (as far as your mind is concerned), so why bother?
Gabriele Oettingen decided to test this hypothesis with systolic blood pressure readings, which is a measure that reveals how energized or motivated a person is. Cool, huh?
Her findings were consistent:
Positive fantasies lower your blood pressure and make you feel less energized and motivated.
It’s like you’re literally dreaming yourself to a standstill.
The point is:
Positive fantasies don’t help you achieve your goals, but rather hinder you from achieving them.
So if that doesn’t work, what does?
Enter: Mental Contrasting…
Mental Contrasting: a Visualization Technique that Actually WORKS
The solution is simple:
Instead of only visualizing the desired outcome, you visualize both the desired outcome AND the possible obstacles within you that could impede you from achieving the outcome.
Gabriele Oettingen calls this mental contrasting.
You mentally contrast your desired outcome against the possible obstacles within you.
Here’s how it works step-by-step:
Step 1: Identify a goal you want to accomplish.
This can be anything that excites and challenges you. It can be a today, tomorrow, next week, 3 months, 1 year, or 5 year, or whatever goal. Just something that you truly wish to accomplish.
“I want to finish that book by the end of the day.”
"I want to exercise 3 times a week."
"I want to finish this project on time."
Step 2: Visualize yourself achieving your goal.
This is the part where you positively fantasize about how amazing your life will be once you’ve accomplished your goal. Ask yourself, what’s the best outcome that would result from accomplishing this goal? How would achieving this goal make you feel? Imagine this outcome.
“I feel proud of myself and relieved that I’ve finally finished the book…”
"I feel great about myself. I'm very proud, have more energy, and look better..."
"I feel both relieved and proud. I can now take a well-deserved break..."
Step 3: Visualize the potential obstacle that could impede you from achieving this goal.
Ask yourself, what are your personal obstacles that could prevent you from accomplishing this goal? Imagine this obstacle.
“I get distracted by the internet and watch hours of YouTube videos.”
"I make too many excuses and tell myself that I'm too tired to exercise."
"I let other people, my smartphone, the TV, and other distractions get in my way."
Very simple and straightforward.
The only difference to merely positively fantasizing is the addition of the obstacles.
That begs the question…
Can Such a Small Tweak Really Make a Difference?
Does adding obstacles to your visualization process really make a difference?
And what a difference it makes!
Gabriele Oettingen has done tons of studies on this and her results are consistent:
Mental contrasting results in MORE motivation and a HIGHER chance of achieving the desired outcome.
In one of her studies 168 female students were asked to identify one personal wish or concern that they currently had. Then the students were split up into 4 different groups:
- Mental Contrasting: This group mentally contrasted by first visualizing the positive outcome and then visualizing the obstacles.
- Indulging: This group only positively fantasized about realizing their wish
- Dwelling: This group only dwelled on the negative aspects of the situation.
- Reverse mental contrasting: This group first visualized the potential obstacles and then visualized the positive outcome
Here are the results as described in the book:
“The results were surprising. We had expected that mental contrasting would give all participants who tried it a boost, but when we pored through the data, we saw that only some students who had mentally contrasted wound up feeling more energized and immediately tried to realize their wishes.
The key was whether they thought they stood a good chance of success to begin with. If students had expectations based on past experience that they would succeed, then mental contrasting caused them to be significantly more energized and more promptly engaged than members of the other groups. If students who had mentally contrasted judged success unlikely, then they felt less energized and took less action around their wished than did other participants. [emphasis added]”
Mental contrasting energized, motivated, and propelled into action only some people.
So there is a small caveat.
Mental contrasting only resulted in more motivation for people who had high expectations of succeeding and were convinced they could achieve their goal.
People who didn’t expect to achieve their goal ended up being less motivated.
When people get aware of the obstacles and realize they have a good chance of overcoming them, they get more motivated.
When people realize that they are unlikely to overcome the obstacles (= their goal is unrealistic), they get less motivated.
Does that mean this technique is risky or less powerful?
No, it means it’s even MORE awesome.
Why? Because mental contrasting either motivates you or shows you that your current goal is unrealistic (in which case you end up less motivated).
Both cases are positive outcomes for you.
If you end up less motivated, you can stop wasting your time on an unrealistic goal and pursue a new one.
If you end up more motivated, great! You’re more likely to achieve your goal.
Why Mental Contrasting Works
There are several reasons why mental contrasting works so well.
Let’s explore some of them right now.
You discover insights and revelations about why your current reality doesn’t match your future goal
This is kind of the intuitional explanation.
When you perform mental contrasting, it’s not uncommon that you experience some sort of “aha moment”, insight, or revelation.
You somehow become aware of obstacles that you’ve never even thought about before.
All of a sudden the path to achieving your goal is laid out much more clearer in front of you. You know which steps to take and which obstacles to avoid.
Here’s how Gabriele Oettingen describes this:
“Watching participants perform mental contrasting, we could tell by their facial expressions that something was happening in their minds. Often participants seemed to experience insights, their eyes brightening and their bodies straightening in their chairs, suggesting an unusual combination of relief and focus.”
You subconsciously connect achieving your future wish with the current reality
This is dope:
Mental contrasting somehow connects the future and current reality in your subconscious mind.
When your wish is attainable and realistic, the future and present reality become fused together on a subconscious level. When the wish is unrealistic, the future and present become disconnected.
Here’s why this is great:
Once future and reality are fused together, your mind always brings up your current reality when you think about your future.
Every time you think about your goal, you automatically get reminded of your current obstacles. This reminder makes sure that you do what is required to move closer to the achievement of your goal.
Without this linkage, you simply wouldn’t become aware of potential obstacles, and would very likely not be able to overcome them.
“With such a mental linkage in place, an individual couldn’t think about her dream any longer without automatic reference to the obstacle, and the obstacle would serve as a constant and nonconscious spur to take action.”
You are more likely to do the right thing
There’s a second subconscious connection happening during mental contrasting:
“Forging a link between the desired future and present reality isn’t the only way mental contrasting acts on our nonconscious minds. Our research has also established that mental contrasting forges powerful, nonconscious associations between the obstacles we perceive and the instrumental behavior we need to take to overcome the obstacle. The association in turn explains actual, observable changes in behavior.”
The instrumental behavior is what you have to do to overcome the obstacle and achieve your goal.
Instrumental behavior: The behavior to overcome the obstacle
Let’s say it’s Saturday and you have a test on Monday for which you’ll have to study on Sunday. The obstacle in this case would be getting completely hammered on Saturday night, while the instrumental behavior would be to just drink one beer and then switch to water instead.
- Obstacle: Drinking too much
- Instrumental behavior: Drink just one beer and then drink water
By mentally contrasting this scenario, your mind would create a strong subconscious association between the obstacle of getting drunk and the instrumental behavior of just drinking one beer and then switching to water.
This cognitive association increases the likelihood of you doing the right thing (drinking just one beer) on Saturday night.
Why? How would I know?
It happens subconsciously… which means you may not even realize it or be aware of it.
It’s as if you’re being guided by a subconscious mentor who tells you to do the right thing.
(I have no clue whether that’s an appropriate description, but it’s how I imagine it.)
You’re better at interpreting negative feedback, and more
There are a bunch of other reasons why mental contrasting works so well. One of them is that you can better interpret negative feedback, as described here:
“When students performed mental contrasting, they were better able to hear negative feedback and translate it into effective plans for realizing their wished. They also had higher self-esteem, seeing themselves as more competent than participants in the control groups. They perceived negative feedback constructively as identifying a deficit that could be mastered in the future, that was restricted to the given situation, and that was repairable through effort.”
So basically you’ll have more self-esteem and can interpret negative feedback in a much more positive and constructive manner.
(Note: When people were mentally contrasting with unrealistic goals, the opposite happened.)
Gabriele Oettingen sums it up nicely:
“Discoveries, insights, revelations – these happen to people during and immediately after mental contrasting. As this chapter has argued, mental contrasting creates powerful changes in people, affecting how they perceive reality and how they respond to the feedback of others. New associations form in people’s minds, near-instant connections between dream and obstacle, between obstacle and the means of overcoming the obstacle. All of a sudden, in ways that can scarcely be put into words, the obstacle seems more clearly defined than it did before.”
How YOU Can Use Mental Contrasting in Your Own Life
Alright, let’s get to the nitty-gritty and see how YOU can use this powerful tool in your own life to change for the better.
First of all, you can use mental contrasting for literally any wish, goal, or concern you have in your life.
Maybe you want to get a raise at work, get better grades, exercise more often, drive a Lamborghini, buy a jet, have a nice dinner with your spouse, lose weight, gain muscle mass, become more productive, meditate regularly, stop procrastinating, or maybe you just want to feel less stressed.
You can use it for anything.
Also, it doesn’t matter if your goal is short-term or long-term. It can be something you want to attain in the next 2 hours, 12 hours, 36 hours, 3 weeks, 3 months, 3 years, or 30 years.
Mental contrasting doesn’t discriminate.
Let me give you a few basic examples:
- "In the next 7 days I would like to get a nice massage.”
- "In the next 24 hours I would like to have a nice dinner with my kids."
- "I would like to get a raise in my job (say in the next 3-4 months)."
- "I want to become more productive in general."
- "I want to exercise more regularly."
- "I want to meditate for 10 minutes every morning as a habit."
- "I want to write an A on the next math test."
- "I want to get rid of my headaches, insomnia, back pain, or whatever."
It works for everything. And it works very well.
That’s what I’ve found in my life and that’s what science has found in many studies.
Let’s look at some more specific ways to implement it in your life.
Make it a daily habit
This tool works WONDERS, so you might as well commit to doing it regularly.
The easiest way to do that is to make it a daily habit. Do it every morning, or every evening, or in your first coffee break during work, or whenever.
I currently use it every morning as part of my morning routine.
Use it situationally
Got a tough test coming up? Need to finish a project at work? Want to avoid getting completely wasted this weekend? Want to spend more time with your family this week? Want to exercise 3x this week?
These are all great situations to use mental contrasting for.
This way you can use it situationally whenever something important or meaningful is coming up. (Or even if you just have a tiny wish, concern, or goal.)
Use it just once
Even if you try it out just one time, mental contrasting can result in positive behavior change.
In most of the studies on mental contrasting participants were instructed to use this technique just once and just for a few minutes.
After doing mental contrasting just this one time, positive changes in behavior were observed for up to several weeks.
So just give it a shot once. If you feel like it’s worth it, you will want to come back to it again and again.
Use it to beat procrastination
This one’s big for me.
I used to be a TERRIBLE procrastinator and I’m still recovering.
One thing that helps me is to use mental contrasting right when I feel myself procrastinating.
Let’s say I know I should work on a certain project right now, but I just can’t get myself to do it. In the past I would have delayed it further and further and further. I’d feel guilty and just flat out terrible about myself and my self-talk would be killing me. (Plus, I’d never get anything done.)
Today, when I feel myself procrastinating, I immediately do some mental contrasting on it.
5 minutes later you’ll find me working on the very thing I was just about to procrastinate on.
So if procrastination is holding you back from living the life you want, you gotta try this out… it works!
We’ve talked about two different kinds of visualization in this article:
- Merely positively fantasizing about a goal: Makes you feel good in the moment. But makes you LESS motivated and LESS likely to achieve that goal.
- Mental contrasting: Makes you MORE motivated and MORE likely to achieve that goal (if it's realistic and attainable).
Mental contrasting is an easy tool that will increase your chances of achieving any goal or wish you have.
Best of all, it can be done in just a few minutes and with 3 simple steps:
1st, identify a goal you want to accomplish. What is something you truly wish to accomplish in the next few days, weeks, months, or years ahead?
2nd, visualize yourself achieving your goal. What’s the best outcome that would result from accomplishing that goal? How would achieving this goal make you feel? Imagine (positively fantasize about) this outcome.
3rd, visualize the potential obstacle that could impede you from achieving this goal. What are the obstacles within you that could prevent you from accomplishing this goal? Imagine these obstacles.
Here’s to mental contrasting - an easy tool for goal achievement!
Use it… it works!
So what do you think? Are you going to add mental contrasting to your arsenal? What are you going to use it for? Let us know in the comments below!
NOTE: You can make mental contrasting even more effective by combining it with implementation intentions. Together these tools are then called WOOP - a method that works better than mental contrasting alone.
You can check it out here:
WOOP - Science's BEST Tool For Habit Change and Goal Achievement
So I’ve been doing it wrong all along. Great. At least now I know why it does feel so good in the moment, but has never really helped my make something happen. I’ll give this a try!
Hey man, I feel you. I was pretty pissed when I found out about this lol. But certainly better to know than not to know. Plus, mental contrasting is working phenomenally well for me. So that’s great.
I still believe visualization works. According to Joseph Murphy’s books visualizing does work, but only when done according to some guidelines (through faith, believe, repetition, etc.) – not just fantasizing.
His book “The power of your subconscious mind” explains this. His books all contain many success stories of people doing this.
By visualizing the outcome you want, over time you’ll impress that on your subconscious mind and it makes it your reality.
Hey Karl, visualization definitely works. That said, from what I’ve read (and I’ve read a lot), it’s quite delicate. You really need to know what you’re doing to make it work for you. Me, I don’t advise anyone to perform visualization, unless I have enough time to explain to them exactly what to visualize and what not.
It’s probably worth noting that in the NLP version of this there is a very important distinction made about visualizing your desired outcome (future pacing). That is that it must be seen from a disassociated perspective. Visualizing the desired outcome from first-person perspective gives the unconscious the sense that it’s already been achieved. Seeing yourself achieving your goal from third-person perspective creates a compelling self that you unconsciously have to more towards.
That’s an interesting point, Denny. I wonder what Gabrielle Oettingen and the other researchers would have to note about this. Thank you for sharing! 🙂
Hello dear Nils
I have some questions about this technique, if possible to do please reply them, thank you in advance.
In Mental contrasting technique we may predict or recognize a number of significant(big) or trivial(small) obstacles.
1. Do we have to visualize all of them (big or small)? Or do we have to visualize just a number of probable big obstacles?
2. After visualizing each obstacle, do we have to visualize the probable solution to that obstacle or visualize merely the obstacles?
3. After recognizing several different obstacles, do we have to visualize all of them during one session of visualization or shall we devote a single session to visualizing just one obstacle?
Hey there, Arash.
1. You can do either one. You can visualize multiple obstacles, big and/or small. Or you can visualize just one of the obstacles. Personally, I tend to visualize all of the obstacles that come to mind.
2. You first visualize the desired outcome, and then you visualize the obstacles getting in the way of achieving that outcome. So, after visualizing the obstacle, you do not have to visualize the solution to it.
3. Personally, I visualize them all in the same session. You can devote a single session to each obstacle if you’d like. Both ways will work. The important thing is to link the desired outcome with the obstacles so that you can clearly see the obstacles getting in the way of what you want.
Hope that makes sense, and best of luck! 🙂