It’s not my intention to give full information or an extensive discussion on every theory. This website is intended to be a starting point and the main difference with other websites is the visual representation of the theory, which I hope will help get to grips with the theory. There are also links it the bottom to get your further research started.
The WOOP Model
Gabriele Oettingen, 2014
Gabriele Oettingen’s theory of ‘WOOP’ is very much an addition to and critique on Positive Thinking theory, which focuses on the positive aspects of a situation to engender change. She describes this as ‘the Cult of Optimism’ (Oettingen, 2014, p.1), which indicates her feelings about the theory.
“Positive thinking without a check from reality won’t achieve much.”
In early research on Positive thinking, Oettingen noticed that positive thinking can have a negative effect on outcomes. In her study she noticed that with positive thinking, participants were less likely to achieve their goals (Oettingen and Mayer, 2002). Oettingen argues that this ‘cult’ permeates all sectors of society from music to politics (politics of hope) to culture. She claims that we are conditioned from a young age to think positively; often expressed in simplistic slogans like ‘cheer up’ and ‘reach for the moon’. There is a cultural context to how positive thinking is integrated in different societies. Think of stereotyped American (the ‘American’ dream) versus British culture (stiff upper lip) as an example. In that sense also, negativity and positivity is seen differently in different cultures she notices. In Europe, negativity can be the stock answer to “How are you?”, whereas in the USA, only positivity is tolerated generally and negativity is seen as potentially ‘infecting’ other people. Positive thinking rests on a single idea, according to Oettingen (Oettingen, 2014, p.2): “by looking at the future we can hang tough and do our best in the present. And if we are going to look ahead, thinking positively seems to be the way to go”. On the other hand, the opposite can be true too. By dreaming and visualising a positive future, individuals could become disappointed and depressed when they are not possible or when they don’t come to pass.
According to Oettingen, the founder of positive thinking, Martin E. p. Seligman saw beliefs or expectations about the future as based in past experiences of success, which makes me think of the link between positive thinking theory and the Polyanna principle/positivity bias. It can be hope in spite of realising that dreams aren’t going to come true. However helpful this can be in some circumstances, this is also described as toxic positivity by the countermovement to Positive Thinking (Davis, 2023). Oettingen describes the WOOP model on the other hand, as one that links whishes and outcomes with inner obstacles and inner obstacles in turn is linked to behaviour or thinking to overcome them. With this, she recognises that the link between a wish, dream or object and positive thinking is not that straightforward but that it runs through considering and working with inner obstacles.
Oettingen’s critique and approach: mental contrasting
“The solution isn’t to do away with dreaming and positive thinking. Rather, it’s making the most of our fantasies by brushing them up against the very thing most of us are taught to ignore or diminish: the obstacles that stand in our way.”
So, mental contrasting is the focusing on the contrast between the positive and the negative aspects. Oettingen (2014) first explored the positive effect of negative feedback in adjusting people’s behaviour and do what they need to do to acquire the skills to attain their dream or goal, but also recognised the potential negative aspects to this approach. For instance depending, it can be hard to handle or undermine self-belief. Positivity bias also plays a role in that people tend to forget negative feedback.
The WOOP Model centres around (Oettingen, n.d.):
- Just imagining your goal can sap positive energy and make it less likely for the dream or wish to come true.
- This can be overcome by not just dreaming the dream but also acknowledging the obstacles in the way and how to overcome them.
- By using the WOOP model, the client will use their subconscious to focus on the solution and create the positivity and motivation needed to move forward and create a real opportunity to reach their goal.
Oettingen (n.d.), based on her own research and observations, argues that if people engage in positive thinking, the subconscious mind already visualises them as having achieved their goal, which results in the person’s energy going down and thereby their motivation to actually reach their goal.
WOOP is aimed at trying to find a way to keep the client’s energy levels high to keep that focus and motivation to work towards their goal. The technique WOOP uses for this is called Mental Contrasting.
Mental contrasting is keeping the goal in the future in mind, contrasting this with he mental obstacle that stands in the way.
WOOP in practice – How can you start WOOPing?
Its intention is to find wishes, set priorities, fulfil wishes and change habits (Oettingen, n.d.). It connects to processes outside of our awareness according to Oettingen.
- Wish – conscious
- Obstacle – inner
- Plan – resulting in changing behaviour
If you would like to have a look how this looks in reality, there are some practice videos further down on https://WOOPmylife.org/en/practice
To use WOOP with a client:
Session needs to happen in uninterrupted calm. Ask the client to:
- “put all the worries your day to day life to one side and take a minute to come to a space of calm.”
- “ this is your time, everything else has to wait…”
- “what is the wish that appeals to you but that is still challenging?”
- The client explains the wish with probing and encouraging questions from the practitioner
- The client frames the wish within 3 or 4 words
- The client is asked “what would be the best outcome”
- The client explains and explores the outcomes for them
- Then they choose the best outcome…
- … and frames this outcome in 3 or 4 words
- The client is asked to imagine this outcome within their mind
- “how does that feel, to have achieved the outcome?”
- “what would be the result of that outcome and how does that feel?”
- The client is asked to note this in their mind and to experience the best outcome in their mind.
- “what is holding you back within you from tackling your wish?”
- The client explores the considered outcome with the practitioner
- The practitioner asks probing questions to explore obstacles
- “what is your main inner obstacle?”
- The client is asked to phrase the outcome in 3 or 4 words
- “now, close your eyes and let your mind focus on experiencing those words”
- “imagine that obstacle… what is it like? What does it feel like?”
- “what can you do to overcome this obstacle?”
- “when does this obstacle come up? Or where will it come up next?”
- The client is asked to make a ‘defence statement’
- “if/when [this obstacle] comes up I will [behaviour or thought to overcome this obstacle]”.
Critique and further exploration
I think a benefit of this model is that you don’t have to jump in the deep end and use this with clients straight away. You can easily practise this on yourself and when you are confident, transfer this as a tool to your own professional practice. Apparently, very few long term studies have been performed to show that WOOP works beyond a coupe of weeks.
In addition to this, the WOOP model puts reality and obstacles a the centre of the model and how to work with clients, which positive thinking doesn’t do. It tries to convert those obstacles in positive elements of the process of motivating the client towards achieving their dream/goal/outcomes.
A more interesting and potentially serious critique is that the WOOP model is based on change through changing habits, in turn through the subconscious. If we look at Pavlov’s social learning theory for instance, then it is clear that reward (achieving the set goal and positive feedback to the brain in WOOP) occurs after longer term repetition of the stimulus. Indeed Lally et all. (2010) concluded that habits can take a wide variety of length to form. They found this can range from a minimum of 18 days, with an average of 66 days. I am not sure whether the WOOP model offers enough of a sustained impetus without sustained conscious effort to change habits for the longer term to reach longer term goals. If that is correct, then the WOOP model may be more effective for either very short term goals, where the new habit doesn’t need to be embedded in the unconscious, or longer term goals with sustained support, follow up sessions etc… to prevent motivation from waning or disappearing. Within the field of careers, I can for instance imagine how WOOP would be useful in motivating a client to do research or talk to an employer, etc… I am not sure whether it would offer a method for promoting good long term career management practice within the client. What do you think?
On the other hand, there’s an attractive logic to this model which bears thinking about, trying out, and exploring… possibly first on oneself and then on clients when confident. Within it, it does recognise to some extent that reaching a goal or realising a dream is a process, not an event.
- How is this theory related to Hope-action Theory especially but also other motivational models?
- How does it far on https://marcr.net/marcr-for-career-professionals/career-theory/career-theory-introduction-and-concepts/#Choosing you think?
- After exploring this for your own goals, how well do you think it works in the short, medium and longer term?
- Davis, T. (2023). Toxic Positivity: Definition, Research & Examples. [online] The Berkeley Well-Being Institute. Available at: https://www.berkeleywellbeing.com/toxic-positivity.html [Accessed 30 Sep. 2023].
- Lally, Phillippa & Jaarsveld, Cornelia & Potts, Henry & Wardle, Jane. (2010). How are habits formed: Modeling habit formation in the real world. European Journal of Social Psychology. 40. 10.1002/ejsp.674.
- Oettingen, G. and Mayer, D. (2002) ‘The motivating function of thinking about the future: Expectations versus fantasies.’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83(5), pp. 1198–1212. doi:10.1037/0022-35220.127.116.118.
- Oettingen, G. (2014). Rethinking Positive Thinking : inside the New Science of Motivation. New York, New York: Current.
- Oettingen, G. (n.d.). The Science behind WOOP. [online] WOOP My Life. Available at: https://WOOPmylife.org/en/science [Accessed 30 Sep. 2023].
- https://WOOPmylife.org/en/home – official website.