Whether you read the book or watched the movie, you might recall a scene in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, where Harry discovers a magical mirror, called the Mirror of Erised, tucked away in a dusty room.
Given that “Erised” is “desire” spelled backwards, you may also remember that the mirror doesn’t show us as we are, but instead, shows the “deepest, most desperate desire of our hearts.”
As Harry’s parents were killed by an evil wizard when he was a baby, before he was old enough to know them and experience being part of a family, when he looks into the mirror, he sees his parents smiling, standing right behind him with a hand on his shoulder.
So he begins to visit the mirror more and more frequently, until one day, the headmaster Dumbledore, pays him a visit and tells him that the mirror will be moved in the morning, explaining that some have “wasted away in front of it – even gone mad.” Leaving Harry with the warning that “it does not do to dwell on dreams…and forget to live.” (you can watch that part here )
I know it’s just a movie, but when it comes to goal achievement and performance, what does research say about Dumbledore’s advice to Harry? Might positive thinking of this sort be less effective than we might think?
Whether it’s planning out our weekend, thinking about an opening in an orchestra we’d love to audition for, or the kind of career we’d like to have, thinking about our future is a pretty common thing to do.
And it’s often suggested that envisioning our desired futures, and engaging in positive thinking, is essential to getting there.
But researcher Gabriele Oettingen suggests that the reality is a little more nuanced than this. That there are several different ways of thinking about our futures – and when it comes to realizing our goals, some of these ways are more effective than others.
Four ways of thinking about our futures
Way 1: Indulging
One way, is called “indulging.” This is where you envision some version of your future in which everything has worked out exactly the way you want. I know this probably sounds like a good thing, but research suggests that this actually seems to lead to a reduction of effort and motivation.
Because what we’re talking about here is not the structured imagery you might do to pre-experience and rehearse every moment of a performance in advance. Indulging is more like unstructured daydreaming or fantasizing, seeing the goal already achieved, minus all the obstacles that we will have to overcome to get there.
Way 2: Dwelling
Another way of thinking about our future is known as “dwelling.” It’s kind of like the opposite of indulging, in that this is where you focus on just the obstacles in your way. And all of the reasons why you won’t or can’t achieve your goals.
Way 3: Reverse contrasting
A third way is known as “reverse contrasting,” which is like a combination of dwelling and indulging. You start by elaborating on all of the obstacles in your way, but then you imagine the future in which you’ve gotten past all of these hurdles.
And while this sounds like a more productive way to visualize one’s future, for whatever reason, it hasn’t been found to be as effective as the next way of thinking about your future.
Way 4: Mental contrasting
“Mental contrasting” involves imagining your desired future first, and then all the potential obstacles in your way. There’s something about this sequence of thinking that seems to be important, because studies have found this to increase motivation and effort – and ultimately, the likelihood of achieving your goals.
That said, the kinds of areas in which this has been studied – dieting, exercising, time-management, academic performance, and managing one’s diabetes – are rather different sorts of challenges than winning an audition or competition.
So could mental contrasting help with performance-oriented goals too?
A team of researchers (Tay, Valshtein, Krott, & Oettingen, 2019) recruited 67 competitive ballroom dancing (a.k.a. DanceSport) couples, to see if a) there was any difference in the use of mental contrasting between the higher-ranked and lower-ranked teams, and b) if mental contrasting was linked to any differences in performance.
All 134 athletes completed a short survey before an upcoming competition, and were asked two main questions.
First, they were asked what score they hoped to get at the competition. As well as how likely they thought they were to get this score (1=not likely to 5=very likely), and how important it was to them that they get this score (1=not so important to 5=very important).
Next, they were asked to identify one training wish, and one competition wish. As in, “What is your wish for the upcoming training (i.e. practice)?” And then they were asked to elaborate on their wish, with the instructions: “Now we would like you to think about your training-related wish. Think about anything related to your wish, and let your mind go. Please write down your thoughts and images”.
The idea was to keep these questions really open-ended, so they could see which athletes or couples would naturally use mental contrasting. And which would engage in indulging, dwelling, or reverse contrasting instead.
Some example goals
Based on the athletes’ responses, the researchers gave each couple a mental contrasting score from 0 to 4, where 0=neither partner did any mental contrasting for either their training goal or competition goal. And 4=both partners did mental contrasting for both the training and competition goals.
And what did mental contrasting look like in this context?
One athlete said, “During training my wish is to be as consistent as possible physically (wish) regardless of my emotional state (obstacle). Every day needs to be some sort of improvement (wish), even if it is pure repetition (obstacle).”
That might seem like a pretty natural way to think, but it wasn’t necessarily the norm.
Others engaged in reverse contrasting, with statements like “Results between us have not been great since we started (obstacle) and we hope to see improvement with each competition we attend (wish).”
There was also indulging: “My goal is to deeply focus and feel secure, confident and engaged (wish). A nice balance of continual conversation of bodies working together (wish). To work hard but not have it feel like hard work (wish).”
And dwelling: “If partner gets stressed out easily (obstacle) or does not have the same goals (obstacle), then the training process becomes challenging (obstacle).”
So was there any difference in the thinking habits of higher-ranked and lower-ranked competitors?
Frequency of mental contrasting
Indeed there was!
The higher-ranked couples engaged in much more mental contrasting than the lower-ranked couples (2.26 out of 4 vs. .06). While 85.7% of the higher-performing couples had at least one athlete engage in mental contrasting for at least one goal, only 6.3% of the lower-performing couples had one athlete engage in mental contrasting for at least one goal.
Which is certainly interesting – but more importantly, was this related to any differences in competition performance?
Any effect on performance?
Well, there were so few lower-performing couples who did any mental contrasting, that the researchers looked at performance differences just among the higher-ranked couples.
And, as you’ve probably already guessed, the more mental contrasting the athletes did – the better they tended to perform in competition.
So what does this all mean?
Well, I guess the short answer, is that Dumbledore seems to have been onto something.
Essentially, that having goals and clarity about what we’d like our futures to look is fine and dandy. But if we hang out in this imaginary future, and skip over the less pleasant part of acknowledging the obstacles in the way, we’re not going to be as well equipped to act effectively on these challenges.
So for the next week, consider practicing the habit of forming a goal for your next practice session, and pairing that with some challenges that you expect to face.
And whether the obstacle is fatigue, frustration, overwhelm, or boredom, see if knowing what to expect makes it easier to push through or around the challenge and turn it into one of those tough but ultimately satisfying practice sessions that makes it feel like you’ve made some real progress – and have maybe earned yourself a movie night?
Tay, I. Q., Valshtein, T. J., Krott, N. R., & Oettingen, G. (2019). Mental contrasting in DanceSport: The Champion’s mindset. Psychology of Sport and Exercise.