Mental Contrasting

Mental Contrasting

In his book,  How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character, Paul Tough provides clues into a few of the qualities that generate success.  The author provides case studies that indicate that cognitive skills alone  are insufficient in ensuring that an individual will further his post-secondary education and go on to enjoy a successful career and life.


David Levin (found of KIPP Academy) and Dominic Randolph (headmaster of Riverdale School) are educators from very different school settings; the former is charter-based and the latter, private.  Along with researchers, Martin Seligman, Chris Peterson and Angela Duckworth, they have identified “seven strengths that are likely to predict life satisfaction and high achievement.” These character traits include: grit, self-control, zest, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism, and curiosity.”  


The researchers have been exploring methods to teach and quantify these qualities to middle school students, the age at which they can engage in meta-cognition (thinking about thinking).  They maintain that having good habits is essential to success. But having good intentions isn’t enough.  Duckworth draws a distinction between motivation and volition. That is “a strong will doesn’t help much if a student isn’t motivated to succeed, so motivation alone is insufficient without the volitional fortitude to follow through on goals.”  


Gabriele Oettingen and her colleagues at NYU have identified three goal-setting strategies: indulging, dwelling, and mental contrasting.  The first two are seldom successful. In indulging (often favored by optimists) people envision the future they would like, which can trigger a dopamine surge, but that imagining “doesn’t correlate at all with actual achievement.” Dwelling (often characteristic of pessimists) involves thinking of all of the obstacles to a goal. The third method combines elements of the other methods. “It means concentrating on a positive outcome and simultaneously concentrating on the obstacles . . . Doing both creates a strong association between future and reality that signals the need to overcome the obstacles in order to attain the desired future.” The individual must implement plans in the form of if/then statements that link the obstacles with ways to overcome them. In simple terms, this sounds like a familiar slogan: Just Do It!

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