“Positive thinking works, believe me! This is how an enthusiastic lady calls out to me at a fair dedicated to well-being and personal development. She continues: “The proof: one of my friends was in a catastrophic financial situation. She diligently practiced positive thinking and a miracle happened. A distant old aunt bequeathed her house to her at the time of her death. Of course, this cannot be proof. Our selective memory is too adept at retaining only what suits it. My interlocutor does not seem to be aware of the confirmation bias… I retort that I am happy for her and that this friend must now be happy. “Not really, she replies gloomily, she has cancer and the treatments seem ineffective…” I wonder: how can this woman affirm that positive thinking produces miracles, testimony to the support, but no healing? Is this the mystery of positive thinking?
Let’s start by clarifying the concept: when we talk about positive thinking in the world of personal development, we are not referring to optimism, but to the alleged powers of thought for the achievement of our goals. Not the faculties of reasoning, imagination, concentration or perseverance, but a kind of quasi-magical power that thought would have to attract what is in phase with it, a mechanism having been pompously baptized “law of attraction”. “. Positive thoughts attract like a magnet positive events in our life, the same goes for negative thoughts that must therefore be avoided at all costs.
Books extolling the powers of positive thinking are legion and their bookstore success has never been denied: Joseph Murphy, Norman Vincent Peale, Napoleon Hill, Rhonda Byrne – his book The secret flirts with the tens of millions of copies sold – or even Anthony Robbins have amassed fortunes with their writings. On closer inspection, a succession of testimonials recounting the wonders of positive thinking, but giving pride of place to the well-known confirmation bias in cognitive psychology: only favorable cases (assuming they are proven) are retained…
Everything is possible, it’s the “law of attraction”!
Beyond this good-natured literature, are there studies with impeccable methodology that could fuel the debate? This is indeed the case, with the work of Gabriele Oettingen, professor of psychology at the universities of New York and Hamburg. She and her team have carried out over twenty years a multitude of studies involving tens of thousands of subjects. His book Rethinking Positive Thinking, which details all of this work, has paradoxically not been translated into the language of Émile Coué. It’s true that a text presenting nuanced academic results sells less well than a book claiming that everything is possible thanks to the law of attraction!
The fundamental idea of Gabriele Oettingen was to compare the results obtained thanks to different ways of thinking about the objectives that one wishes to achieve. Classical positive thinking was implemented through so-called “creative” visualizations: the subjects had to imagine their goals as already achieved in as much detail as possible and feel all the satisfaction in advance. Others were instructed to think about anything that could prevent them from realizing their dream. And, finally, still others were asked to visualize success, then to imagine an obstacle that could hinder the achievement of their goal as well as a way to overcome it. Note that for supporters of the law of attraction, imagining a potential obstacle is an infamy, since this thought will inevitably materialize in our lives! In cognitive psychology, on the other hand, the mental strategy which consists in preparing for a difficulty with an action plan is richly documented, in particular with the work of Peter Gollwitzer on programmed intentions (implementation intentions).
The results, study after study and without surprise, lean in favor of the third way of proceeding. Whether it’s passing an exam, committing to a job, meeting a romantic partner, losing weight, quitting smoking, conceiving an obstacle and ways to dealing with them is the winning method. Common sense, after all! Taking pleasure in imagining the best is undoubtedly good for morale, but refusing to consider the possible pitfalls does not offer any help in the event of a glitch! Gabriele Oettingen even offers a four-point formula for those who want to practice this method: identify the Desire, visualize its Realization, imagine an Obstacle and Plan a parade if necessary, hence the acronym DROP. Let us specify again that the obstacle must in a certain way depend on us and be subject to modification by our action.
What works for real
To illustrate such a principle, consider the wish – shared by many – to lose weight. It is easy to visualize the result and the benefits that come with it: compliments from friends, better physical shape, preserved health, more choice of clothes, etc. The obstacle identified could concern snacking, especially at the end of the day after a good dose of professional stress. The parade would consist in this case of carrying dried fruit or an apple in case of cravings. It would seem that this way of proceeding trains the brain to find solutions in the event of annoyances, even if it is not the one imagined that is implemented when the time comes.
But then, what to think of all these testimonials in favor of the law of attraction? Happy events that happen in the lives of people who use it? It is undoubtedly a question here of attention. We can miss opportunities simply because we don’t pay attention to them, obsessed with our worries. The British psychologist Richard Wiseman makes an edifying demonstration of this: he asks subjects to count the number of illustrations in a magazine that he gives them. On the third page, he added an insert indicating the exact number of illustrations contained. Those who read this insert only have to show it to the supervisor of the experiment to deliver the correct count and win the promised reward of 100 euros. But of course, most participants are so busy counting the illustrations that they don’t pay attention to the inset. Only a handful notice it. But these have a characteristic: according to questionnaires that we made them fill out beforehand, they consider themselves to be lucky people. Believing in one’s luck seems to lead to a more relaxed attitude, more open to the outside world. The lucky ones would not attract happy events, they would notice them more and know how to take advantage of them…
Be that as it may, one conclusion stands out, which contradicts what the proponents of the law of attraction claim: thinking about the negative does not attract the negative. On the contrary, it rather makes it possible to avoid it, or to overcome it, by taking the appropriate measures. Moreover, come to think of it, the law of attraction is inspired by the principles of electromagnetism whose analogy is often put forward. But in nature, negative electric charges repel each other and attract… positive ones. Maybe we should have started there!
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Positive thinking has lead in the wing
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