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Strategic negativity

There’s a lot to be said about positive thinking. From goal-setting to placebo effects and positive expectations influencing mindset, behaviors and outcomes. But how about 𝙣𝙚𝙜𝙖𝙩𝙞𝙫𝙚 𝙩𝙝𝙞𝙣𝙠𝙞𝙣𝙜? Is there a time and a place for that? Turns out there is: In the planning phase. For managing risk and increasing the chances of success. This is a step most of us don’t take. But we should.

Why we don't engage in negative thinking

  • It’s unpleasant and so we avoid it. Imagining a negative situation evokes the same hormonal response as if experiencing that negative situation.

  • Our cognitive biases work to protect our self-image. Daniel Kahneman talks about our need we have to update our self-image in a positive way. Dan Kahan would call it identity-protective cognitions. We are trying to protect this idea of us being smart and great and successful. In essence, we need to have a positive self-view, and that's why we are overconfident and why we avoid negative thinking. Our brain is wired to protect our self-image.

Why it's important to engage in negative thinking

Optimism and positive thinking are appropriate when goal-setting and working towards challenging goals. Saying to yourself “I’m going to succeed along the way” is very motivating. But rosy predictions can lead to overconfidence and make you more susceptible to failure when things don’t go according to plan. Pessimism and negative thinking, on the other hand, are very useful in that interlude between goal-setting and starting to work towards your goals: the planning phase - when mapping out the route to get you to your goals. With negative thinking, you imagine the exact same goal, but you say to yourself, “Let me imagine that I failed to reach this goal. Why did that happen? Researchers such as Gabriele Oettingen at New York University has shown that we are actually much more likely to succeed if we imagine failing to reach our goal than if we just imagine succeeding. This is because:

  • By identifying potential obstacles that are going to stand in your way, you can actually do something about them. You can plan ahead and reduce the chance they trip you up you or cause you to quit.

  • Negative thinking hormonally activates you for action (the same way that a lion coming at you would), whereas positive thinking makes you feel good and laid back. When feeling relaxed we don’t have that same sort of stress reaction that gets us to actually move and do things.

There’s a great study by Gabriele Oettingen at NYU on people who were in a weight loss program who wanted to lose at least 20 kilos. Half the subjects were applying positive thinking (imagining that they successfully lost the weight, that they went to the gym, and they ate healthy, and their love life improved etc.).
The other half were told to imagine that things didn’t go well. Asking themselves questions like “What if I don't lose the weight? What if my friends don’t even notice? What if I’m still not happy with my body afterwards? What if I fail to go to the gym?”.
The results? The second group lost, on average, 12 kilos more than the group who engaged in positive thinking.

What can we do about it?

As Annie Duke (decision scientist and author of How to decide) explains, one of the biggest problems that we have as decision-makers is this battle in our heads between the present version of us and the future version of us. We know (but often forget) that what’s good for our future self doesn't always feel good for our present self. The trick when dealing with intertemporal choices, where your goal is actually to have the best outcomes in the long run, is to favor your future self over your present self. Decision tools that use negative thinking in the planning process generate about 30% more content on possible obstacles that might stand in the path of success. The more of that future landscape that you can identify, the better you are going to be able to navigate it, be able to prepare for it, avoid those obstacles or react to those obstacles more rationally when they happen to appear. All these increase the chances that you succeed. Perhaps the most popular of these tools is the Pre-mortem technique. Invented by Gary Klein and celebrated by Nobel laureates like Daniel Kahneman, it comes down to this central question:

“Imagine it’s a year later. Why was the decision a success? Why was the decision a total disaster?” The Premortem technique helps overcome blind spots, bridge short-term and long-term thinking, tame excessive optimism and challenges the illusion of consensus.

Another useful framework, developed by Prof Oettingen is the WOOP framework: Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan. It leverages the power of both positive and negative thinking at different parts of the process. It’s also recommended as a framework to use when setting S.M.A.R.T. goals.

Take-aways for combining positive + negative thinking

  1. Imagining failure is not really a bad thing. It might cause you a little distress right now, but it will also enable you to be protective of the future version of you - the one that will be closer to your goal.

  2. By applying negative thinking in the planning process for reaching your goal, you focus attention to possible obstacles so that you can actually make a plan for overcoming them.

  3. Exercises like the Pre-mortem technique and the WOOP framework help get you and your teammates in the mindset for looking for obstacles. Doing these exercises may be unpleasant but if the upside is better chance of succeeding, you should be willing to make that trade.

  4. Reframing pessimism as a planning tool can help you anticipate some of the obstacles you might encounter and raise your chances of success.

  5. The trick is to balance both tendencies: to leverage a positive outlook to make your goal meaningful and your efforts manageable, and to leverage negative thinking to identify potential problems before they arise—the power of combined positive and negative thinking.


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