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A girl studying, can negative thinking help?

Can negative thinking help your school?

2 min read
  • Motivation, Resilience & Growth Mindset

Have we been lied to all this time? Is positive thinking holding you and your students back? Recently, an article in The New York Times looked at the power of negative thinking. Professor Richard Wiseman wrote further on the problems of positive thinking in an article. Here’s a short overview of some of the studies they mention and how a bit of negative thinking can help you.

Studies on negative thinking

Student motivation – In 2011, Heather Kappes and Gabrielle Oettingen published a study that asked university students to imagine that their upcoming week would be a great one. When compared against a control group, at the end of the week, the positive fantasisers reported being less energised and achieved significantly less.

Exam results – A week before important exams, researchers from the University of California asked a group of students to spend a couple of minutes picturing themselves getting a high mark.  When compared against students who visualised good study habits, the positive outcome students studied less, were more anxious and achieved lower test scores.

Eating better in the staff room – Studies have consistently found that those who spend time visualising successfully completing a diet tend to lose less weight than those who spent the time visualising being tempted by that sweet sticky donut.

Securing that dream job – University students who reported spending the most time dreaming about getting their perfect job upon graduation were found to have received fewer job offers and to be paid less once in employment.

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Analysis of negative thinking

Why is positive thinking sometimes so detrimental to performance? Two different schools of thought exist. Some believe that the more time you spend fantasising about the ideal outcome, the less urgency you have to start working towards it, as you feel like you have already achieved it. Others believe that picturing the perfect outcome leaves you ill equipped for the inevitable obstacles that will come along the way.

What can you do about it?

Here are some simple tips to help you maximise the power of negative thinking:

  • Start Doing – Professor Richard Wiseman suggests it is ‘less about positive thinking and more about positive doing’. His brilliant book, “As If”, offers many practical ideas for how action is more important than thinking.
  • Focus on the process – If you are going to spend time visualising future behaviour, it is better to focus on the strategies you are going to implement rather than the outcome.
  • Highlight potential obstacles – This will help you generate strategies to overcome them and leave you less anxious when they occur.

For tips and information on growth mindset, check out our guide page on Developing Growth Mindsets.

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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