Richard Friedman in The New York Times:
Ever hear the joke about the guy who dreams of winning the lottery? After years of desperate fantasizing, he cries out for God’s help. Down from heaven comes God’s advice: “Would you buy a ticket already?!” Clearly, this starry-eyed dreamer is, like so many of us, a believer in old-fashioned positive thinking: Find your dream, wish for it, and success will be yours. Not quite, according to Gabriele Oettingen, a psychology professor at New York University and the University of Hamburg, who uses this joke to illustrate the limitations of the power of positive thinking. In her smart, lucid book, “Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation,” Dr. Oettingen critically re-examines positive thinking and give readers a more nuanced — and useful — understanding of motivation based on solid empirical evidence.
Conventional wisdom has it that dreams are supposed to excite us and inspire us to act. Putting this to the test, Dr. Oettingen recruits a group of undergraduate college students and randomly assigns them to two groups. She instructs the first group to fantasize that the coming week will be a knockout: good grades, great parties and the like; students in the second group are asked to record all their thoughts and daydreams about the coming week, good and bad. Strikingly, the students who were told to think positively felt far less energized and accomplished than those who were instructed to have a neutral fantasy. Blind optimism, it turns out, does not motivate people; instead, as Dr. Oettingen shows in a series of clever experiments, it creates a sense of relaxation complacency. It is as if in dreaming or fantasizing about something we want, our minds are tricked into believing we have attained the desired goal.