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Mental contrasting

Author: Dr Simon Moss


Mental contrasting is a technique that increases the likelihood that people will fulfill their goals (Oettingen, 2000, 2012;; Oettingen, Pak, & Schnetter, 2001). In essence, individuals are first instructed to imagine the benefits they would experience if they fulfilled the desired goal, such as eat healthy food, as vividly as possible. Next, they are instructed to reflect upon the obstacles that could impede this goal, such as limited motivation, also as vividly as possible. Provided they form these images in this order (Kappes, Singmann, & Oettingen, 2012, this exercise, called mental contrasting, has been shown to increase the likelihood that people will achieve their goals. Nevertheless, mental contrasting is successful only if people are confident they can indeed achieve this objective (Oettingen, Marquardt, & Gollwitzer, 2012).

Illustration: Creative tasks

To illustrate this technique in the context of creativity, Oettingen, Marquardt, and Gollwitzer (2012) conducted a task in which participants first completed a measure that, supposedly, predicts their creative ability. Some participants were informed their creative ability is only slightly above average. Other participants were informed their creative ability greatly exceeds average. This feedback, although contrived, was intended to influence the degree to which participants were confident they will thrive on a forthcoming creative task.

Next, some participants completed the mental contrasting exercise. First, they identified four positive consequences that would unfold if they completed the forthcoming creative task effectively. Perhaps they would feel proud& perhaps they would feel more confident in the future, and so forth. Next, they identified four obstacles that could impede their success on this forthcoming creative task. Perhaps they might feel distracted& perhaps they might feel anxious, and so forth. Then, participants were asked to imagine each positive consequence, and then each obstacle, as vividly as possible. As they imagined these consequences and obstacles, they also recorded their thoughts or feelings on paper.

In one of the control conditions, participants imagined only the positive consequences vividly, called indulgence. In another control conditions, participants imagined only the obstacles vividly, called dwelling.

Finally, all participants completed insight problems, such as "Describe how to put 27 animals in 4 pens in such a way that there will be an odd number of animals in each pen." Relative to the other conditions, mental contrasting enhanced performance on the creative task, but only if participants had been informed their creative ability greatly exceeds average. The second study replicated these findings, even after another control condition was included, in which participants vividly imagined events that were unrelated to the task. Overall, these studies indicate that mental contrasting is effective, provided individuals are confident they can fulfill their goals.

Mechanisms that underpin the benefits of mental contrasting

Several papers have discussed and explored the mechanisms that underpin the benefits of mental contrasting (e.g., Oettingen, Mayer, Sevincer, Stephens, Pak, & Hagenah, 2009;; Kappes, Singmann, and Oettingen, 2012). In essence, obstacles, such as fatigue or anxiety, can evoke a variety of inclinations in people. People may feel inclined to avoid these obstacles, such as shun activities that could amplify the anxiety. Alternatively, people may feel inclined to approach and to overcome the obstacles, such as to accept or counter the anxiety somehow.

Arguably, when individuals apply mental contrasting, they become more likely to associate the obstacle with activities that overcome these impediment--and become less inclined to associate the obstacle with avoidance. In particular, the positive and inspiring images, such as feelings of success, are projected onto the obstacle. Consequently, the obstacle is perceived as an impediment to be overcome and not an impediment to be avoided or neglected. The obstacle, such as anxiety, is then associated with behaviors that overcome this impediment, such as relaxation exercises. As soon as individuals are exposed to this obstacle, these behaviors are spontaneously primed.

Evidence of the underlying mechanisms

To demonstrate that mental contrasting reinforces the association between the obstacle and the behaviors that override this impediment, Kappes, Singmann, and Oettingen (2012) conducted a compelling study. For this task, participants first engaged in mental contrasting. Specifically, they were instructed to reflect upon an interpersonal concern, such as conflict with their partner. They were asked to specify a positive consequence they would experience if this concern was resolved, such as feelings of warmth and harmony. They were then asked to specify a word that represents an obstacle to this consequence, such as jealousy, as well as a word that represents a behavior they could implement to override this obstacle, such as distraction. Finally, participants were then asked to imagine the positive consequence and then the obstacle as vividly as possible.

One of the control conditions was the same, except participants imagined the obstacle before they imaged the positive consequence. Another control condition was the same, except participants imagined events that were unrelated to the concern.

After this exercise, participants completed a lexical decision task: Their objective was to decide whether a string of letters was a legitimate word or not. Before each string appeared, another word was presented subliminally--that is, too rapidly to be detected consciously. On the critical trials, the target word was the behavior, such as distraction, and the prime was either the obstacle, such as jealousy, or another word.

If participants had engaged in mental contrasting, they recognized the behavior more rapidly if followed by the obstacle. In other words, the obstacle was highly associated with the behavior. In contrast, if participants had imagined the obstacle before they imaged the positive consequence, called reverse mental contrasting, this priming effect was not observed.

Receptivity to information

Arguably, when individuals apply mental contrasting, they embrace all the information that is needed to proceed. In contrast, when individuals enjoy positive fantasies only, they neglect vital information. In particular, they feel motivated to overlook complications and other insights they perceive as undesirable.

To illustrate, in one study, reported by Kappes and Oettingen (2012), some participants were instructed to immerse themselves in a positive fantasy. In particular, they imagined they had thrived on the stock market and now could enjoy all the benefits of wealth, such as unlimited travel or shopping. The other participants were instructed to immerse themselves in a questioning fantasy, in which they recognize some potential obstacles or complications. For example, while fantasizing about the possibilities that could emanate from investment in the stock market, they were also encouraged to question whether they would be successful.

Next, they were granted an opportunity to read six articles, purportedly to learn more about the stock market. Some of the articles focused only on the benefits of stock market investment, such as the wonderful lives of three successful investors. Other articles focused on complications, such as the possibility that wealth does not always translate to happiness. Participants then specified which articles they would like to read first. If participants had immersed themselves in positive rather than questioning fantasies, they were reluctant to read about the complications. These results were observed even after controlling mood and the degree to which stock market success seems desirable.

But importantly, this finding did not persist if participants had actually intended to invest in the stock market. These participants preferred only the positive information, regardless of which fantasies they entertained. The other studies uncovered the same pattern of findings, but with minor variations. For example, in the first study, the time spent reading positive and negative information was assessed.

To explain these results, the authors referred to the concept of selective exposure bias, analogous to spreading of alternatives or confirmation bias. Specifically, when people have committed to some task, they no longer assess other alternatives. Consequently, they do not want to be aware of the complications. These complications would merely impede their progress. So, they bias their attention to the benefits of this pursuit. Similarly, when people immerse themselves in a positive fantasy, they also do not want to evaluate alternatives. So again they dismiss the complications, regardless of whether or not they are actually committed to this pursuit. They neglect information that could be pertinent to their decision.

Associations between future possibilities and challenging realities

Kappes and Oettingen (2014) clarified the mechanisms that underpin the benefits of mental contrasting. In particular, they discovered that mental contrasting increases the association between future possibilities and challenging realities. Even words that epitomize challenging realities or obstacles now will prime words that epitomize inspiring possibilities in the future after people engage in mental contrasting. Consequently, individuals become more aware the challenging realities now are obstacles to the future possibilities. Their motivation to override these obstacles thus increases.

Kappes and Oettingen (2014) conducted an interesting study to verify these arguments. In this study, participants first identified a social goal they want to achieve, such as meet a girlfriend. Next, they attempted to represent the possible outcomes of fulfilling this goal in one word, such as "joy". In addition, they attempted to represent a challenging reality or obstacles to fulfilling this goal in one word, such as "shyness". Afterwards mental contrasting was manipulated. To induce mental contrasting, participants wrote about their future possibilities and next their existing realities about their goal. In the control condition, the order was reversed.

Then, participants completed a lexical decision making task in which they needed to decide whether or not various strings of letters were legitimate words. On some trials, the words associated with the future outcomes or obstacles appeared as these strings or subliminally preceded these strings. Finally, participants were asked to indicate the extent to which they feel energized to fulfill this goal as well as their confidence in achieving this goal.

If participants had engaged in mental contrasting, words that relate to future possibilities primed words that relate to existing realities. That is, subliminal presentation of future possibilities expedited recognition of existing realities. The control condition did not generate the same association between future possibilities and immediate realities. Furthermore, this association between future possibilities mediated the association between positive expectations and energized goal pursuit. Thus, after people engage in mental contrasting, the realities are perceived as obstacles to future outcomes. So, provided they are confident they can achieve these future outcomes, people become energized to overcome these obstacles.

Applications of mental contrasting

Many studies have substantiated the benefits of mental contrasting (e.g., Oettingen, Mayer, Thorpe, Janetzke, & Lorenz, 2005). In particular, mental contrasting has been shown to increase the likelihood that people will help other people (Oettingen, Stephens, Mayer, & Brinkmann, 2010), refrain from cigarettes (Oettingen, Mayer, & Thorpe, 2010), and thrive in academic settings (Gollwitzer, Oettingen, Kirby, Duckworth, & Mayer, 2011).

Effort on unrelated tasks

Mental contrasting, intended to enhance performance on one task, can actually increase the effort that is devoted to other tasks as well. This possibility was explored and confirmed by Sevincer, Busatta, and Oettingen (2014). In one study, participants were instructed to write an excellent essay. To induce mental contrasting, participants were then asked to consider two favorable consequences of writing an excellent essay, such as confidence in the future. In addition, they were instructed to consider two impediments to writing an excellent essay now, such as inexperience with writing essays. In the control conditions, participants either did not consider the two impediments, called the present reality, or write about favorable and unfavorable experiences with a teacher. Before and after this task, their blood pressure was measured. Furthermore, their capacity to squeeze a handgrip over an extended time was also assessed.

If participants engaged in mental contrasting, systolic blood pressure, reflecting arousal or energy, increased significantly. Consequently, their capacity to squeeze a handgrip also improved appreciably. This pattern of results, however, was observed only if participants expected to write an excellent essay. In contrast, if participants did not engage in mental contrasting, expectations about writing an excellent essay did not affect either systolic blood pressure or handgrip performance.

The second study replicated this finding. In particular, this study showed that mental contrasting on one task enhanced effort and performance on a subsequent interpersonal task: writing a letter to a friend. That is, the participants were more likely to exhibit empathy and suitable language.

In these studies, expectations of success, at least after mental contrasting, energized individuals, as indicated by increasing systolic blood pressure. However, participants were not granted an opportunity to complete the tasks that had mobilized this energy. Consequently, this energy was then devoted to another task.

Augmenting implementation intentions

Mental contrasting may also enhance the benefits of implementation intentions. To form an implementation intention, people relate their goal, such as to eat healthy food, to a specific cue, such as feeling hungry. To illustrate, they might repeat to themselves "When I feel hungry, I will eat healthy food".

Adriaanse, Oettingen, Gollwitzer, and Hennes (2010) proposed two mechanisms to explain how mental contrasting could enhance the benefits of implementation intentions. First, mental contrasting enhances the likelihood that individuals will commit to a goal. That is, individuals commit to goals when the consequences seem desirable but plausible. If they engage in mental contrasting about the benefits of eating healthy food, individuals will be more inclined to commit to this diet. Such commitment increases the probability that implementation intentions will be effective (Sheeran, Webb, & Gollwitzer, 2005). Second, mental contrasting increases the likelihood that individuals are cognizant of obstacles. These obstacles can then be integrated into the cues or conditional part of the implementation intention.

Adriaanse, Oettingen, Gollwitzer, and Hennes (2010) conducted two studies to assess this possibility. In one study, for example, participants were asked to engage in mental contrasting, to form implementation intentions, or to attempt both or neither approach. These techniques were undertaken to curb their intake of unhealthy snacks, like chocolate.

To engage in mental contrasting, participants were asked to identify a snack they would like to avoid over the week, to elaborate the benefits they would enjoy if this wish was realized, and to uncover an obstacle that could preclude this achievement. For example, they were asked to contemplate the most significant obstacle and represent this impediment in one word. They also considered events and experiences they associate with this obstacle, to elucidate this problem.

To form the implementation intention, they constructed a sentence like "If I experience the obstacle, like boredom, and I feel like eating the chocolate, I will eat fruit instead". They also visualized this intention for two minutes. In the control condition, participants merely listed their top ten healthy acts. All participants, completed a questionnaire on how well they felt they abstained from this unhealthy snack over the next week.

Mental contrasting, combined with implementation intentions, was more effective in curbing the consumption of unhealthy snacks than either technique alone. Whether or not the participants felt the habit was strong and entrenched did not moderate the benefits of this approach.


Adriaanse, M. A., Oettingen, G., Gollwitzer, P. M., & Hennes, E. P. (2010). When planning is not enough: Fighting unhealthy snacking habits by mental contrasting with implementation intentions. European Journal of Social Psychology, 40, 1277-1293.

Gollwitzer, A., Oettingen, G., Kirby, T., Duckworth, A., & Mayer, D. (2011). Mental contrasting facilitates academic performance in school children. Motivation and Emotion, 35, 403-412. doi:10.1007/s11031-011-9222-0.

Kappes, A., & Oettingen, G. (2014). The emergence of goal pursuit: Mental contrasting connects future and reality. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 54, 25-39.

Kappes, A., Singmann, H., & Oettingen, G. (2012). Mental contrasting instigates goal pursuit by linking obstacles of reality with instrumental behavior. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48, 811-818. doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2012.02.002

Kappes, H. B., & Oettingen, G. (2012). Wishful Information preference: Positive fantasies mimic the effects of intentions. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 38, 870-881. doi: 10.1177/0146167212446163

Kawada, C., Oettingen, G., Gollwitzer, P. M., & Bargh, J. A. (2004). The projection of implicit and explicit goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 86, 545-559. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.86.4.545.

Kirk, D., Oettingen, G., & Gollwitzer, P. M. (2011). Mental contrasting promotes integrative bargaining. International Journal of Conflict Management, 22, 324-341.

Oettingen, G. (2000). Expectancy effects on behavior depend on self-regulatory thought. Social Cognition, 18, 101-129. doi:10.1521/soco.2000.18.2.101.

Oettingen, G. (2012). Future thought and behavior change. In W. Stroebe, & M. Hewstone (Eds.), European Review of Social Psychology, 23. (pp. 1-63). doi: 10.1080/10463283.2011.643698.

Oettingen, G., Honig, G., & Gollwitzer, P. M. (2000). Effective self-regulation of goal attainment. International Journal of Educational Research, 33, 705-732. doi: 10.1016/S0883-0355(00)00046-X.

Oettingen, G., Marquardt, M. K., & Gollwitzer, P. M. (2012). Mental contrasting turns positive feedback on creative potential into successful performance. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48, 990-996. doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2012.03.008.

Oettingen, G., Mayer, D., & Brinkmann, B. (2010). Mental contrasting of future and reality: Managing the demands of everyday life in health care professionals. Journal of Personnel Psychology, 9, 138-144. doi:10.1027/1866-5888/a000018.

Oettingen, G., Mayer, D., Sevincer, A. T., Stephens, E. J., Pak, H., & Hagenah, M. (2009). Mental contrasting and goal commitment: The mediating role of energization. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35, 608-622. doi:10.1177/01461672 08330856.

Oettingen, G., Mayer, D., & Thorpe, J. S. (2010). Self-regulation of commitment to reduce cigarette consumption: Mental contrasting of future with reality. Psychology and Health, 25, 961-977. doi:10.1080/08870440903079448.

Oettingen, G., Mayer, D., Thorpe, J. S., Janetzke, H., & Lorenz, S. (2005). Turning fantasies about positive and negative futures into self-improvement goals. Motivation and Emotion, 29, 237-267. doi:10.1007/s11031-006-9016-y.

Oettingen, G., Pak, H., & Schnetter, K. (2001). Self-regulation of goal-setting: Turning free fantasies about the future into binding goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80, 736-753. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.80.5.736.

Oettingen, G., Stephens, E. J., Mayer, D., & Brinkmann, B. (2010). Mental contrasting and the self regulation of helping relations. Social Cognition, 28, 490-508. doi: 10.1521/soco.2010.28.4.490.

Sevincer, A. T., Busatta, D., & Oettingen, G. (2014). Mental contrasting and transfer of energization. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 40, 139-152. doi: 10.1177/0146167213507088

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Last Update: 7/19/2016