Why You Should Seriously (Re)Consider Negative Thinking

By: Jim Murphy


Why You Should Seriously (Re)Consider Negative Thinking

1. Dr. Gabriele Oettingen’s research at NYU revealed an astonishing outcome: negative thinkers lost more weight (26 lbs!) than positive thinkers. 

2. One of the mistakes most people make is that they visualize success but don’t visualize the obstacles very well.

3. Psychologist Dr. Gary Klein developed the premortem, which is a method of identifying risks and obstacles by imagining a project or goal failed spectacularly; and then going back to see what obstacles dealt the death blow.

4. With Inner Excellence we expect abundance and prepare to suffer. That is, we visualize success while embracing every possible challenge (even exaggerating the chaos), and see ourselves overcoming the adversity. After all, we know all things are here to teach us and help us–it’s all working for our good. 

“When we visualize, we want a picture of presence (not perfection) a readiness for anything, with no attachments, needs or demands. To visualize well is to feel exactly what you’ll feel under the most pressure; to get those same (often) nervous feelings and see yourself embracing the adversity and using the principles and tools of Inner Excellence to resonate with the challenge. One of the critical aspects of visualization is to become emotionally prepared for pressure and stress. There should be nothing you can encounter in a performance that you’re not ready for emotionally (which is why we exaggerate potential adversity we might face, and see ourselves poised in the midst of it). 

World champion martial artist Georges St. Pierre spent about 80% of his visualization focused on what he wanted to do and how he would do it, and about 20% of it was focused on seeing himself facing and overcoming adversity.” – Inner Excellence, Chapter 10

According to the Harvard Business Review, research conducted by Deborah J. Mitchell, of the Wharton School, et al, found that prospective hindsight—imagining that an event has already occurred—increases the ability to correctly identify reasons for future outcomes by 30%. Dr. Gary Klein took it one step farther by devising a method called a premortem, which helps teams working on projects identify risks at the outset. The strategy is relatively simple: similar to a postmortem which allows health professionals to understand what caused the subject to die, a premortem imagines the subject already dead (though he/she/it is not), and then brainstorms on the reasons why this would or could actually happen. 

“A premortem in a business setting comes at the beginning of a project rather than the end, so that the project can be improved rather than autopsied,” Klein says. In a typical business setting, team members are afraid to speak up about upcoming projects and “rain on the parade;” in a premortem, associates are praised/rewarded for that very thing (finding obstacles or potential threats to success). 

In performance we often make the mistake of visualizing what we want without seeing the potential obstacles. There’s two issues with this:

1. This visualization often doesn’t create the same energy as the performer will feel in actual competition, so the subconscious mind doesn’t link the two. We need our practice (or visualization) to feel similar energetically to the actual performance at least part of the time, so when the real thing comes along (and the subsequent nervousness), the subconscious recognizes it and feels, “Hey, I’ve been here before. I know what to do.”

2. We’re wired to protect against loss, but not success. Thus, visualizing success doesn’t create the same energy as imagining a major setback. There’s a deep, visceral punch-in-the-gut feeling for losing something important to you, but the reverse isn’t true. It takes a powerful, creative imagination to approach the same strength of feeling. 

One of the reasons that visualizing the negative is beneficial, is because of its powerful energy, causing a stir deep within you. We just need to learn to not be afraid of failure (and the imagined feelings), as well as how to leverage those feelings. 

The principle of loss aversion and the studies around it (see resources) have taught us that the pain of losing is psychologically twice as powerful as the pleasure of gaining the same amount.

In other words, losing $20 hurts twice as much as the equivalent gain (i.e. finding a $20 bill). We find a similar effect on the PGA Tour, where golfers are more likely to make a par putt than they are a birdie putt of the same length (miss the par putt and the “loss” feels much greater; miss a birdie putt and rather than losing something, the feeling is that you just didn’t gain anything).

So what do we do?

We visualize both the end result as well as the major obstacles. We don’t want to see ourselves making mistakes, but rather see ourselves embracing and overcoming things out of our control. 

Annie Duke, author of Thinking in Bets, and multi-million dollar winner in professional poker, describes the importance of negative thinking (and Dr. Oetinngen’s research at NYU):

“Negative thinking activates you hormonally the same way that like a lion coming at you would, so it gets you to move and to act. Whereas positive thinking actually hormonally activates those same things that we get when we actually achieve our goals. And so then we sort of feel good, and we lay back, and we don’t have that same sort of stress reaction that gets us actually to move.

[negative thinking] might be actually getting your body into a chemical state where you would actually act.”

What you can do today:

1. Pick a goal. Say it’s to be able to do a backflip (like this pacifist preacher) by 12/31/22.

2. Visualize the end result. See yourself doing it and picture all the circumstances, feelings and reactions that come with achieving your goal.

3. Now imagine you weren’t able to achieve your goal. You failed. Imagine what the main obstacles were that prevented you from achieving your goal.

4. See yourself embracing those obstacles, learning as you go through them, and overcoming.

5. Enjoy your backflip. 🙂

One more thing. Another way to use this new learning in your life is to look at your relationships. Perhaps you’ve lost a relationship recently, or are thinking about one that’s ending. The feeling of loss may be much greater than the actual loss because of our hard-wired aversion to loss. It feels twice as bad as the feeling of gaining the same relationship. If you realize what you’re feeling may be twice as strong as what’s actually happening, you can see more possibilities. 

love Jim
Christmas is coming… and along with it the audio version of Inner Excellence! I’m working on it with the goal of finishing by 12/23/21. I’m visualizing it getting done along with why it might fail, and the biggest obstacles that might contribute. I’m going to expect abundance and prepare to suffer! I booked a cabin on Whidbey Island in Washington state to continue narrating the book. I’m excited about the book as it will have extra material including interviews with pro athletes along with my life story and how I came to write the book. 

What is Loss Aversion? Scientific American. Poldrack, Russell A. 2016.

Performing a Project Premortem. Harvard Business Review. Klein, Gary. 2007.

Daydreaming and Mental Contrasting for Goal-Fulfillment with Gabriele Oettingen. Scientific American podcast. 

WOOP mental strategy website. 

Choiceology with Katy Milkman podcast. 

Who I’m excited to learn from right now
Note: MacArthur Award Fellow (the “genius” award) Angela Duckworth’s podcast interview by Guy Kawasaki led me to Robert Cialdini and Katy Milkman, who led me to Annie Duke. All have fascinating insights on the mind and heart. Thanks Angela!

Angela Duckworth
Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. 2018.
Katy Milkman
How to Change: The Science of Getting From Where You Are to Where You Want to Be. 2021. (co-authored by Angela Duckworth).
Annie Duke
How to Decide: Simple Tools for Making Better Choices. 2019.
Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don’t Have all the Facts.2020.
Robert Cialdini
Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. 

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