The Pros and Cons of Positive Thinking

What’s the best way to gear up for a new habit? There are two common approaches. One is to imagine the positive outcome of solving a given problem. The other is to ponder what about your current situation makes you unhappy and what the solution to your problem might look like.

Gabriele Oettingen of New York University decided to test these ideas against each other. She ran an experiment in which she divided her subjects into three groups and gave them the same problem. The first group was told to start by indulging themselves, fantasizing about having solved it. The second group was told to dwell on the negative consequences of not solving the problem.

The last group, however, was told to do both: to envision the satisfaction of resolving the problem, then to focus on the harm done by not resolving it. Finally, they were to contrast their imagined positive outcome with the current negative reality.

It turned out that when expectations of success were high, the third group performed best. However, when expectations of success were very low, this same group invested less in planning and backed away from taking responsibility for the outcome.

Oettingen theorized that, as is often the case in business and life, people tend to do a cost-benefit analysis of potential outcomes and gear their actions accordingly. It seems they operate under the same principles when deciding how much energy to devote to building a new habit.

Motivation is a necessary force, spurring you forward towards any goal. Countless books and articles tout the benefit of positive thinking as a catalyst, but in Oettingen’s book Rethinking Positive Thinking, she notes that research suggests this only takes you so far. It’s true that fantasizing about achieving a goal can lower blood pressure, compelling us into a state sometimes associated with the positive effects of meditation. Nobody is arguing that daydreaming doesn’t feel good.

But here is where we get into dangerous, and potentially counterproductive, territory. The brain is so good at daydreaming that it can fool itself, removing urgency because on some level it believes you have already crossed that finish line. Dream too much and you can find yourself postponing the journey indefinitely.

This isn’t to say we should chuck out wishful thinking altogether. Oettingen writes that it can be a useful tool, provided you add a few more steps to the process. She’s even created a mnemonic device: WOOP.

W stands for wishful thinking, which, as we’ve explained, is a useful starting point. Before you start in on a new habit, you want to get excited, to get the adrenalin and dopamine flowing.

O is for outcomes. Oettingen believes that, beyond vague dreams of excellence, a clearly defined goal requires specifics. The greater the specificity, the easier it will be to develop a concrete plan for coding in a new habit. Wanting to become a long-distance runner is one thing; aiming to compete in a certain marathon on a certain date—and following a marathon training plan to get you there—is quite another.

The next O stands for obstacles. Here is the all-important reality check: by anticipating setbacks, you can gauge the likelihood of success and get a jump on overcoming issues as they arise in your quest to maintain that habit.

Taken together, the WOO of WOOP brings you to what Oettingen calls “mental contrasting”—honestly examining the nuts and bolts of what ABC Sports used to call “The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.”

P is for plan, or “implementation intention” as Oettingen puts it. The two main ingredients are specifics and an if-then statement: if I get the urge to watch TV, then I’ll go for a short walk before I tackle my writing assignment. The key is to be detailed and yet general enough that you can easily initiate the new behavior.

This approach helps you thwart potentially habit-crushing distractions, sustain motivation, and trigger the desired action. If I don’t feel like jogging this morning, then I’ll listen to some upbeat rock for a few minutes to get myself pumped up before I hit the pavement.

Keep in mind that you don’t want to link implementation intentions to a particular time of day (If it’s six in the morning, then I’ll start jogging). This constricts you from starting earlier and, should the clock tick over to 6:02, gives you permission to wait until tomorrow, handing the baton off once again to Future Self.

If-then statements dovetail beautifully into JB Fogg’s “tiny habits” philosophy: If I’m brushing my teeth, then I’ll floss afterwards. It formalizes and helps crystallize the intended behavior. 

You can also try out some if-then-then statements, piggybacking multiple actions on your “if”: If I enter the weight lifting room of the gym, then I’ll do leg lifts, bench presses, and pull-ups.

 Good luck!

The Power of Distractibility

Do you experience difficulty in filtering interruptions out of everyday life? Do outside forces—sirens, a co-worker chewing loudly in the next cubicle over, the smell of cologne in a packed elevator, the roar of the crowd, or the buzz of an incoming email—make you feel as if you are constantly under assault?

No, this is not an ad for some new concentration wonder drug. Many of us suffer from the inability to stay focused. There’s even a name for it: reduced latent inhibition. It’s a phrase that sounds pretty serious. As you read this, maybe you’re starting to feel guilty, worrying that your life may be negatively affected by these rapidly pingponging thoughts. What if it interferes with your ability to get things done, to think complex thoughts and make contributions to the world?

It’s true that diminished focus might be a negative net result of heightened sensory awareness, but don’t despair. Harvard psychologist Shelly Carson and her team discovered something unusual when they looked at faculty members known for their creative prowess. The best of the best, the researchers found, were seven times more likely to have noticeable levels of reduced latent inhibition.

How could vulnerability to distraction lead to a greater creative output?

 Rather than a detriment, researcher Darya Zibeline of Northwestern University says that having a “leaky” sensory filter—a brain that struggles to filter irrelevant information from the environment—is linked with higher levels of creativity because these people simply process more information than their better-focused counterparts. And the more information a person can process, the wider their set of associative connections, which leads to a greater possibility of novel solutions.

History is rife with examples of well-known creative thinkers who suffered from easy distractibility. Charles Darwin, Marcel Proust, and Franz Kafka all reportedly had a hypersensitivity to sound, to the point where something as simple as a loud ticking clock could derail their thinking. But the flip side is that they were more likely to pick up on the linkage of everyday experience and its ties to more powerful ideas. After all, a young Darwin uncovered the connection between breeding livestock and the history of evolution—one that seemed to elude virtually everyone else at the time.

So the next time someone points out your lack of focus, remind them that you are simply living a more meaningful life, taking in more of the world’s beauty, and unearthing the hidden connections everywhere around you.

(Assuming you’ve paid attention long enough to read this far.)

Remix Culture, Revisited

Where do great ideas come from?

Often, the answer is “other great ideas, sort of mashed together.”

The term “remix culture” was coined after the invention of technologies that made hiphop possible: literally sampling pre-existing recordings. Sugarhill Gang’s landmark “Rapper’s Delight” samples the bass riff from Chic’s “Good Times,” a riff which has since been sampled dozens of times, by everyone from Grandmaster Flash to Will Smith to Daft Punk.

Of course, the concept of using someone else’s work to make something new has been around since nearly the dawn of music. In his classic Folk Songs of America, historian Alan Lomax takes a moment to defend “cowboy music” from “book-learned folklorists” who at the time alleged that it didn’t count as a true folk movement, since so many of the songs were reworkings of older ballads.

“To my mind these critics have merely pointed to the fact that the West was a cultural melting pot,” Lomax wrote in 1960. “…That this evocative and self-consistent body of oral literature could have been created in thirty or forty years (for the open range period lasted only from 1865 to 1900) and under constantly changing conditions, is a marvelous example of how quickly a folk culture can grow up when it is needed.”

These days, remixing extends well beyond rewriting a Maine lumberjack anthem to be about herding cattle on the Trail of the Buffalo. “Remix culture” is now perpetuated by open source image manipulation software, along with the widespread availability of sound and video editing. It is easier than ever to take one cultural object and turn it into something else. Essentially, technology has democratized the remix.

As creativity researcher Kirby Ferguson reports, hardcore rock aficionados sometimes dismiss Led Zeppelin as “rip-off artists” because many of their songs contain parts that seem wholesale lifted from old blues standards, like Sam Cooke’s “Bring it On Home.” “Stairway to Heaven” steals its opening licks from the band Spirit and their song “Taurus.” This was pretty common at the time; a lot of rock bands covered other people’s stuff. Ferguson suggests that perhaps Zeppelin’s real sin was not changing the songs enough, and neglecting to credit the original writers.

In fact, Ferguson makes the case that most entertainment is a kind of legal remix. Genres like horror, action, or romantic comedy can only exist because creatives have borrowed from each other to create a commonly understood palette of ingredients, from jump scares to car chases to meet-cutes. This isn’t even getting into the number of films each year that are direct remakes, sequels, or adaptations of pre-existing stories (I’m looking at you, superhero movies).

Ferguson vividly demonstrates how even game-changers like George Lucas weren’t working from scratch. The iconic Star Wars seemed to invent a new genre out of whole cloth, but in fact much of its power comes from the bafflingly wide assortment of older ideas Lucas threw together, from old Flash Gordon flicks to Westerns to Joseph Campbell’s philosophies. In fact, the original trilogy includes many shot-for-shot copies of scenes from other films, including Akira Kurosawa’s samurai movies. (Luke’s white tunic in the first Star Wars is familiar to any young martial arts student.)

Recently, Leonardo DiCaprio won an Oscar for Best Actor in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant. Much like Star Wars, the film includes some striking visual parallels to another director’s work, namely legendary Soviet filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky. An intrepid viewer put together a supercut of those moments here. However, unlike perhaps Led Zeppelin, Iñárritu openly admits to Tarkovsky’s influence, among others.

The key to novel recombination is making surprising new connections across a wide variety of disciplines. In Hamilton, composer Lin Manuel-Miranda captures the machismo and illicit danger of eighteenth century dueling with “The Ten Duel Commandments,” an obvious homage to “Ten Crack Commandments” from rapper Biggie Smalls. The juxtaposition is jarring and uncomfortable, and it works.

When viewed through the lens of the remix, it becomes apparent just how much of how lives consist of recombination, from our conversations to the clothes we wear. We are constantly putting a new spin on the same old. That’s not necessarily good or bad—it’s a mixed bag. Which is to say, a sort of remix in its own right.