Gabriele Oettingen is Professor of Psychology at New York University and Senior Professor of Social Psychology & Motivation at Zeppelin University. She is the author of more than 200 articles and book chapters on thinking about the future and the control of cognition, emotion, and behavior. She received her PhD from the Ludwig-Maximilians-University Munich and the Max-Planck-Institute for Behavioral Sciences in Seewiesen.
She has contributed significantly to international research through her work on the risks of positive thinking and through developing the concept of mental contrasting. Mental contrasting is a self-regulation technique to facilitate success and well-being in everyday life and personal development. Within the framework of WOOP, the technique of mental contrasting can be easily learned and used by anyone – independently of age, background, or culture. Oettingen's work has been widely published across disciplines, for example, in social and personality psychology, developmental and educational psychology, health and clinical psychology, industrial and organizational psychology. She has also published in neuropsychological and medical journals. Her findings contribute to the growing literature on lifestyle change. Educational institutions and business organizations are increasingly interested in applying her research.
goal setting and goal disengagement
Oettingen's research addresses two broad questions: (1) What self-regulatory strategies can people use to turn their positive thinking about the future into action, and (2) what self-regulatory strategies can people use to disengage from their goals?
Engagement to goals
Mentally contrasting a desired future with present reality leads to the emergence of binding goals with consecutive goal striving and goal attainment, as long as chances of success are perceived to be high. To the contrary, mentally elaborating either the desired future only (indulging) or the present reality only (dwelling) leads to moderate goal commitment, even if chances of success look promising. These effects were observed in a variety of life domains (e.g., interpersonal relations, academic achievement, professional achievement, health, life management) and with different paradigms (e.g., salience, reinterpretation). Recently, Oettingen has discovered the underlying cognitive and motivational processes of mental contrasting and applied this self-regulatory technique in intervention studies. Finally, she analyzed mental contrasting with implementation intentions (MCII, see also Woop for Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan) as an effective strategy to change behavior and conquer unwanted habits in the achievement, interpersonal, and health domains.
Disengagement from goals
Mentally contrasting a desired future with present reality leads to disengagement from goals, if chances of success are perceived to be low. Mentally elaborating either the desired future only (indulging) or the present reality only (dwelling) to the contrary, maintains goal commitment even when chances of success are perceived as being low. Again, Oettingen has demonstrated these effects in various life domains (e.g., interpersonal relations, health) and with different paradigms. Currently, she is using mental contrasting procedures to help people disengage from goals that are not feasible (e.g., from a damaged relationship, from an unattainable professional identity). People simply have to mentally contrast their desired future with present reality. If chances of success are perceived as being low, the disengagement process can begin so that people can move on and reengage in more feasible goals.
Committing to approach goals versus avoidance goals
Mental contrasting does not only turn positive fantasies about a desired future into binding approach goals but also turns negative fantasies about an undesired future into binding avoidance goals. More specifically, people must contrast negative fantasies about an undesired, feared future with positive aspects of the current, safe reality, and expectations of successfully avoiding the undesired future have to be high. Using mental contrasting to turn fearful fantasies into constructive avoidance goals should be of particular importance when people have a hard time generating positive fantasies about the future (e.g., in the health domain, or in situations involving prejudice against members of an out-group).
Indulging and the uncontrollable
Can indulging in a positive future have beneficial effects on motivation and well-being? Oettingen finds that when facing controllable and escapable tasks, people benefit from mentally contrasting fantasy with reality. However, when facing tasks that cannot be mastered or relinquished (e.g., being terminally ill), indulging in positive fantasies should be beneficial, because it allows one to “stay in the field.”
Culture and self-regulatory thought
In the past, Oettingen conducted research on how cultural and political factors shape the development of efficacy beliefs, control beliefs, and attributional styles. She now asks the question of how cultural factors influence the development of the three modes of self-regulatory thought (i.e., mental contrasting, indulging, dwelling). For example, she is investigating the prevalence of the three modes of self-regulatory thought in cultures that differ in their degree of norm-orientation.
Coping with stress and interpersonal relations
Oettingen analyzes the psychological processes that make people who mentally contrast sensitive to chances of success and make people who indulge and dwell insensitive to chances of success. For example, she has discovered how mental contrasting instead of indulging/dwelling promotes differential processing of relevant performance feedback, differential evaluations of critical experiences, and differential ways of coping with failure as well as acute and chronic stress. Another line of research focuses on the interpersonal consequences of mental contrasting versus indulging and dwelling. In comparison to mental contrasting, indulging and dwelling leads people disregard the needs and behaviors of their interaction partners (e.g., romantic partner, child, employee). This insensitivity then might affect the interaction partner’s direct responses as well as his or her long-term thoughts, feelings, and actions (e.g., aspirations, attitudes, decisions).
Misplaced certainty in the context of conspiracy
theories and fanaticism
Oettingen examines misplaced certainty in the context of conspiracy theories and fanatical behaviors. Misplaced certainty is defined as the feeling of certainty that is questioned by oneself or most others. In the area of conspiracy theories, for example, misplaced certainty may encompass “knowing” or feeling certain that secret agents are forming a coalition against the society – yet accepting that this conviction has no evidence or fails to be shared by most others. Misplaced certainty has been found to predict and causally promotes antisociality, including fanatical behavior as measured by determined ignorance, aggression, and following of extreme groups. Introducing the concept of misplaced certainty to the research on fanaticism should promote the discovery of when, why, and in what contexts fanaticism leads to hostile behaviors and detrimental outcomes.