Mental Contrasting — adding a dose of reality to daydreams

Satyajit Rout
2 min readJul 21, 2022

You’re brushing your teeth in the morning and imagining an important presentation later in the day. You picture yourself setting the table for the problem, laying out the options, and winning the audience’s vote for a desired solution. You’ve quick answers and there’s not a moment you go off script. What may actually transpire, the reality of it is something that you don’t consider.

We often have a rigid framework for how events should pan out. And we will ourselves to believe through positive thinking that nothing outside that framework shall come to pass. So, we end up being surprised when it does because hey, this wasn’t supposed to happen.

Adding a dose of reality to your daydream is what makes it a plan. An actual plan for overcoming obstacles. This is an approach called 𝐦𝐞𝐧𝐭𝐚𝐥 𝐜𝐨𝐧𝐭𝐫𝐚𝐬𝐭𝐢𝐧𝐠.

Mental contrasting debunks the commonly held view that only thinking positive can lead to positive outcomes, and that negative thinking is primed to fail. Instead, Gabriele Oettingen, who first came up with the idea for mental contrasting, says that pairing 𝐩𝐨𝐬𝐢𝐭𝐢𝐯𝐞 𝐭𝐡𝐨𝐮𝐠𝐡𝐭 𝐰𝐢𝐭𝐡 𝐭𝐡𝐨𝐮𝐠𝐡𝐭 𝐚𝐛𝐨𝐮𝐭 𝐰𝐡𝐚𝐭 𝐦𝐚𝐲 𝐠𝐞𝐭 𝐢𝐧 𝐭𝐡𝐞 𝐰𝐚𝐲 𝐨𝐟 𝐭𝐡𝐞 𝐩𝐨𝐬𝐢𝐭𝐢𝐯𝐞 𝐟𝐮𝐭𝐮𝐫𝐞 𝐢𝐬 𝐜𝐫𝐮𝐜𝐢𝐚𝐥.

Now, back to the presentation. What could be some real barriers to winning for you?

Not ensuring everyone agrees on key assumptions
Answering the surface question, not the real one
Not managing time
Not laying out clear next steps
Not thinking about who will execute the plan
Nerves that interfere with performance
Not anticipating ‘so what?’ and not having a response
Dealing poorly with personality issues, questioning styles

How can you practise mental contrasting for such a situation? Here’s a practice Oettingen refers to as WOOP. Write down:

𝐖 — What is your Wish?
𝐎 — What is your ideal Outcome?
𝐎 — What are the Obstacles?
𝐏 — What is your Plan to overcome the obstacles?

Once you do that, here may be some ways you come up with to overcome identified obstacles:

👉Have a self-talk routine (‘breathe and believe’)
👉Have a tension-release routine (two deep breaths and a smile)
👉Ask a question when you only get the surface question
👉Start with your plan’s weaknesses
👉Don’t get stuck at a point
👉Practice responses to things you’ve a habit of committing impulsively to
👉Prepare opening and closing your arguments
👉Be clear about the 1–2 clear decisions you want from the meeting

These responses could be a series of if-then statements (‘If I encounter obstacle X, I’ll respond with action Y’), something called implementation intentions.

Anticipating the future is anticipating the challenges it may bring and then making a plan to meet them. If you don’t want to be thrown off in your pursuit of your cherished goal, practise mental contrasting.



Satyajit Rout

I write about decision-making, mental models, and better thinking and things in between