Interview with Gabriele Oettingen
Welcome, I'm excited to introduce all of you to psychologist Gabriele Oettingen, author of Rethinking Positive Thinking- Inside the New Science of Motivation. >> Yeah, so the idea is I've WOOPed a lot about yoga and getting up in the morning, so when the alarm goes off and I want to stay in bed, my automatic brain can't just think about it that way. >> In a way, you do a mental efforts strategy for five minutes, it triggers automatic processes that do the job for you, and that's the kind of nice thing.
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Welcome, I’m excited to introduce all of you to psychologist Gabriele Oettingen, author of Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation. And also the researcher who developed this technique WOOP that we talk about in the course. Thank you so much for joining us today.
Thank you for having me.
So what we wanted to do today was just to hear in your own words what is this technique WOOP. Students have already heard about it a little bit in class, but we thought that since you discovered that you can kind of give us some context and talk a little bit about it. So what is WOOP? It’s a strange word, but.
What is WOOP? WOOP is an acronym for four steps which is Wish, Outcome, Obstacle and Plan. And WOOP is a tool. WOOP is like, you know, a bicycle, or a hammer, or any tool you might use in your life to get by in a better way. And WOOP is a tool which is relatively simple. And we have found that more or less, everybody can use it. So we have done research with seven, eight year olds, we have done research with the elderly, we have done research with stroke patients, we’ve done research through SES. We have done research with people from different cultures, so it seems everybody can use WOOP.
Yep, and so let’s just talk a little bit about what you might use it for. So I’m someone who has a desire to do something but it’s hard for me to do. And so how do I bring WOOP to that?
Right, so you can use WOOP in order to make yourself do things which you don’t like to do. Or to not make yourself do things which you’d like to do. You can use WOOP to gain insight into your daily life, into your long term development. You can use WOOP to fully engage into something, feel kind of, ah this is now what I really want to do to develop passion. But you can also use WOOP to understand maybe this is not the wish I really want to follow up. Maybe I should postpone it to a better point of time or I should let go. So WOOP is a little bit like a cleaning up tool so you can clean up your life. You can get rid of those things which might not really belong to you, which you might not really feel passion about. Or that you might not be really kind of able to do in the sense that you feel, okay, there’s so much energy and so much costs involved if I want to fulfill that wish. And I put my energy better into things which are more feasible.
And so talk a little bit about the actual process of it itself. So students in the course have heard a little bit about it, but kind of in your own words. Let’s say I’m a student, and I have something that I really want to do everyday. How do I start?
What you need to WOOP is five minutes of quiet and calm.
Which is hard for all of us, but students in particular.
It’s very hard, and that’s actually one of the hardest parts. But it’s one of the most rewarding too, because you need to take yourself out of busy life, busy life in order to later, once you used it, to get involved again. So you don’t need quiet in the sense that it’s as quiet as in the studio here. But you need quiet in the sense of uninterrupted. So if you’re in the nearest subway and you travel from lower Manhattan to upper Manhattan, you can WOOP. Despite the fact that things are busy around you but you need to be uninterrupted. You can’t do email, you can’t talk to somebody, so you need these five minutes. But it’s really not more than five minutes, once you practiced WOOP a little bit, it can be super short that you actually go through these four steps. So that’s the first, that’s a pre-requisite. You need to have five minutes, you need to say, okay, this is just for me now. And quiet, and calm, and then you apply WOOP to yourself. Certainly you can apply it on others but first you need to start just applying it to yourself. And what you say to yourself is, what is my most important wish? For example, in life, for the next four weeks, for the next week, or for today, or for the next meeting. So you can apply time frame, whatever is important for you. So you take this question really seriously, you say, what do I want? What do I want in life? What do I want for the next four weeks? What do I want today? Today is Monday. What do I want for today? And then you think about what do I really want? And you isolate one important wish that is really dear to your heart. And you take that wish and formulate it in three to four words and put it in front of your mind, that’s the W.
And the idea is you’re really thinking about it like you said, I’ve actually spent time thinking about the wish and come up with words for it.
Not yet, you don’t really think about the wish yet. You search for the right wish. So the first step is really a searching process. What is it actually that I want? Let the other people be away. So what is it that I want to do? Okay, and then you have it in three to four words in front of your mind. And then you go home and you say to yourself, what would be the best thing, the best outcome, if I fulfilled myself that wish. And you would say, okay, the best thing, whatever it is. Might be an emotion, might be a good result. What would be the best thing, what do I really want, and what would I really feel then. And you search for this best thing, the best outcome. And again, you take three or four words and put it in front of your mind. And then you imagine the best outcome. You just let your mind go. So that’s not a searching process anymore. That’s really imagine, experience it in your mind. And you take a couple of seconds maybe 20 seconds, 30 seconds, a minute or so to really feel it out. So that’s the O. And instead of going on, on your nice thoughts about wish fulfillment, you would now switch gears.
Now you get practical .
Whoa, what stops me? Then I actually fulfill my wish and experience that outcome. What is it in me that stands in the way? That I actually tackled that wish and feel that outcome. What is my main inner obstacle? And then again you search, what is it really? What is it in me, no excuses. What is it really in me.
And again, it can be an emotion, it can be an irrational belief, it can be a bad habit, it can be something somebody said years ago. Whatever it is, just find it and dig deeper. What is it really that stands in the way. And once you identify that obstacle, that main inner obstacle, again, phrase it in three to four words and put it in front your mind. And then you do the imagery again. So you imagine that obstacle occurring. You imagine it, you experience it, you feel it. And you take a little time to really kind of experience that main inner obstacle. Okay, and then the plan. So to establish a plan, you first ask yourself, what could I do to overcome that obstacle? What would be an effective action or an effective thought to overcome that obstacle? What would be something I could do to surmount that obstacle? And then you find this behavior or this thought and again you formulate it into three to four words and put it in front of your mind. And then you make a very simple if-then plan, and that’s the implementation intentions, but be the [INAUDIBLE]. So you make if, and then you put in your obstacle, then our will, and now you put in the action, the effective action. Then again you imagine, if obstacle, then our will, action. And that’s all, that’s WOOP, wish, outcome, obstacle and plan.
And it seems like from hearing you say it, I think one thing that sounds like it’s really important is that this feels like it should take some work, or at least some time that you’re sitting there and really imagining. I can’t just think, say my wish for the moment, is I’m trying to set up a regular yoga practice. So I can’t just like regular yoga practice, it would be awesome, it’s hard to get up in the morning, I’m just going to get up when I see the clock and do it. Like you actually have to take time to experience the outcome, take time to really think about the obstacle, search for it and get the right thing but then also really incubate and think about it? Is that right?
Exactly, so we know from MEG studies that it really takes mental effort. It takes more mental effort than if I just indulge in the positive fantasies. It takes more mental effort than, if I’m in just in a resting state. So it does take mental effort to do the exercise. We will be talking later about the mechanisms. The mechanisms are automatic, so this mental effort, doing the exercise triggers non-conscious processes which then do the work for you. But the process, the procedure itself, that takes mental effort.
Because I think that’s important, because I think people could see this technique and think, I quickly think about the W and the O and the O and the P but it does take work. It does take that work. In that sense it’s very similar to other things we’ve talked about in the course, things like meditation and so on, and it’s like ultimately the outcomes are good. But that you have to put in the effort to start. It’ll feel like it’s taking work at the time. And so you alluded to the mechanism, so one of the, I think the exciting things about WOOP is that it’s five minutes in your life. And the data do really seem to suggest that if you do this practice, you can bring yourself to do this five minute practice everyday. There’s a host of positive benefits. So do you want to talk about some of the empirical work like the kind of surprising findings how effective this is?
Yeah, before I do that, let me go back to the first step, the W. So you can do WOOP in two ways. You could specify a wish that is actually feasible to you, and that is a little bit challenging. And that’s the exercise which we put on the app and which is on the website. Once you specify a wish that is feasible, principally feasible, it’s hard to do, but it’s feasible. I can do yoga.
Yeah, everyday, yeah.
I can do, I can run or whatever.
So usually it’s feasible for me. That means you will likely discover an obstacle that is surmountable, and then really can go for it.
And you are determined to actually implement it. You can also use WOOP to find out whether something is feasible or not. So if you have a kind of eerie feeling about a meeting or if you feel, hmm I don’t know whether I should go here or I should go there, this course or that course, this life path or that life path. Then you can actually just have the wish and then by identifying the obstacle in you, find out whether this is something you feel that is overcomeable and is also fitting into your life. Or whether this is something maybe doesn’t fit in your life so well at the moment. Or maybe you want to have it let go because you have more important things to do. So WOOP is for going for the feasible wishes but then also for understanding whether something is feasible. And then going for those which are feasible, but also letting go from those that are less feasible. So it’s really a cleaning up tool.
Yes, so the right process of WOOP might really be, there might be some wishes for which when I really think carefully about the obstacles I say, either this isn’t going to happen, or maybe there’s a different way to get that positive outcome that’s not exactly that. And so it’s kind of a, there’s a feasibility thought process where you’re really kind of coming to terms with what you can really do and what you really care about, and what really matters.
And the main objective of WOOP is really to get you involved. So you might sort of through going through WOOP, you might discover, okay this wish I can’t but a little lower. So seven times a week jogging or yoga, uh-uh this is just not going to happen, like you said. But four times or jogging over the weekend, or jogging together with a friend or something. So then you get creative, you get into the process of really kind of tackling your wish and at the end, this wish fulfillment might look differently than you thought before, but you got involved. You got really into the problem solving. So WOOP is a problem solving technique if you want.
So let’s talk a little bit about why it works, which you mentioned a little bit before. So part of it just seems to be that I have the space to think, to do the searching and to think about this, it’s kind of this feasibility check, right? In our daily life we often don’t do that, we just think, I want all these fantastic things, but then I don’t think about the work that it would take to get there, right. But a second part is something specific to WOOP and how it interacts with the way our minds work. So maybe talk about each part of that and how it works.
Right, so the critical part in WOOP is the obstacle. And what we find is that this contrast procedure or exercise of WOOP Triggers non-conscious processes, automatic processes, that then are responsible for the behavior. And you can divide them in three kinds of processes, one is cognitive. So it links the future with the obstacle. So it creates associative links, very strong associative links between the future, between the wish fulfillment and the obstacle. And between the obstacle and the instrumental means to overcome the obstacle. And in addition it changes the meaning of the reality. So that you recognize this is an obstacle. So now, for example, the party on Saturday night is not a fun party anymore, it’s now the obstacle to doing well on the exam on Wednesday. So the idea really is, that by triggering these non-conscious cognitive processes, that the WOOP exercise will allow you to kind of automatically do, later on, what you want to do.
Then you say, okay, maybe I’ll leave the party earlier or whatever.
Yeah, so the idea is I’ve WOOPed a lot about yoga and getting up in the morning, so when the alarm goes off and I want to stay in bed, my automatic brain can’t just think about it that way. It’s already made the association between, that feeling you have when you want to stay in bed, that’s preventing you from getting all these good things. I can’t just do it normally anymore, there’s this automatically.
Exactly, and the associative links, they happen between the future, between the wish fulfillment, and the obstacle, and in between the obstacle, and the behavior to overcome the obstacle. And then I recognize and I interpret the reality as an obstacle. And it’s really the obstacle which is important, not so much the behavior how to overcome the obstacle, that’s important too. But without recognizing that actually what my obstacle is these behaviors run into empty.
And the obstacle’s powerful because it just gives you something to link the plan to. Like when you see it there’s this association with, like when I see this I’m supposed to to do X, Y, and Z, I’ve thought about it carefully.
And by kind of imagining the obstacle, very often these behaviors to overcome the obstacle, they just kind of fall on you. By recognizing that’s the obstacle, then you’re also recognizing this is how I could.
And this is the other thing we spoke about in the course, is all of Peter Gollwitzer’s lovely work on implementation intentions. Somehow this process just kind of harnesses, you just kind of get it for free, you’re like, oh wait, I’m supposed to do this next, and then you go from there.
And the implementation intention, the P in WOOP, kind of explicitly adds on what is implicitly already done in mental contrasting. Because in mental contrasting, the obstacle and the instrumental means to overcome the obstacle, is already implicitly linked. But with the P, we just add on another step to make that really explicit. So that this explicit formula of the plan can strengthen the implicit processes later on.
And so now we understand a little bit about the mechanism, and so then let’s talk through everything we talked about-
Okay, there are two more mechanisms which I briefly want to mention. One is motivational. So what is motivation? Energy times direction if you want. It heightens energy and you can measure that by blood pressure or with feelings or with visualizations. And then the third one is that if you get criticism, or setbacks, or negative feedback. Then you actually push against it in a sense that you don’t take it personally. But you process all the information entailed in the negative feedback, so you remember them and you put them right into the plans. So negative feedback is not a threat anymore, it’s now an opportunity to get good information of how to better fulfill your wish, and negative feedback is, leaving your self-concept-
So it’s all kind of opportunities to problem solve, you’re like, there’s another obstacle and I’ll just work through this, rather than judgement or something like that.
Exactly, and these processes then mediate the actual behavior later on. So it’s kind of practical.
In a way, you do a mental efforts strategy for five minutes, it triggers automatic processes that do the job for you, and that’s the kind of nice thing. It’s not this kind of effort and sweating strategy, it’s a strategy where you discover a lot of interesting things about your life, wish, outcome, obstacle, plan. Which triggers these kind of automatic processes you don’t need to care about. And then it makes you get involved into life, so you discover again. Through interactions, through novel interactions with people, your work, nature, whatever, wherever you’re way is leading you.
That’s great, and we talk in the course a lot about trying to harness behaviors that you can turn into something like brushing your teeth. And the beauty is the effort that you do for the five minutes can make the other parts of it feel that easy. Where it’s just, of course, I brush my teeth at this time and so on. Yeah, so now let’s talk about all the spots, because one of the fantastic things is about this is that it could sound like, it sounds so magical. It can be a big plan, little plans, yoga, and all this stuff, does it really work, and is the science really there. I think that’s one of the fantastic things is that we know from the research that these kinds of things work in a different context. Did you want to speak a little bit about-
Some of the spots where you’ve seen this play out?
So certainly we did lab studies where we tested these kind of very minute kind of quickly working associative links for example. But then we did also field studies, and we did intervention. And the nice thing is either with kind of minimal effort, without the teaching for a long time or whatever, just very minimal effort. We got effects in all different areas of life, many different areas of life. Achievement, interpersonal relations, in health, so that we feel it matters, so WOOP matters.
And it matters in the different areas, and I think the nice thing is you can apply WOOP in different ways. You can sort of test whether WOOP works with respect to a specific range, and then you measure how people dealt with that wish. But you can also measure, when you teach WOOP as a strategy, as a tool, then when people apply it, wherever they go, would it help them?
And we have data sort of showing that both works. So you can teach for example WOOP to people in the area of more exercise, more healthy eating, and you’ll find that effects last over four months over two years, despite the fact that the actual intervention was only an hour and half an hour for the phone follow up. You still find differences two years later, and people have been kind of left alone. So these studies, they were minimal effort. So I think if people apply it in their life, then you would see the benefits even, much greater.
That’s great. Although than the issue becomes how you actually get yourself to do it, because there’s a kind of chaining problem, right? Like, I might want to WOOP to do yoga, but then I have to WOOP, and then I need to WOOP to do the WOOP to do the yoga.
So another thing we’re talking about a lot in the course is whether the people come up with the science for this actually use these practices in our lives.
Do you WOOP? Do you WOOP every morning? How do you get yourself to do it? Has it just become a habit now?
Right, I think I probably wouldn’t have kind of put so much effort into doing the app.
And doing the website and sitting here.
If I hadn’t seen the benefits, kind of anecdotally and personally. Because once you experience them personally then it still has a different kind of quality than if she read the findings in the literature or if you actually produce these findings.
So after a while when you practice WOOP you feel the benefits because you get so much clarity in life. And you get so much more clarity about each step you go that it gets kind of addictive but you need to practice it. You need to experience it, and you need to experience what it does to your life in order to get this kind of addiction.
Do you have a sense of how long that sort of thing? Or like when did it become easy when you sought out the WOOPing in the morning?
That can vary, I mean, four years ago, or three years ago, I did a WOOP session with a couple of people.
And then I thought there was this one person, and I thought, okay, this didn’t work at all for him. He left early, and I thought, okay, probably he didn’t like it. I don’t know, maybe he had an appointment.
Who cares. Two years later, he came back and said, I’m now married. I lost so many pounds. I have my life in order, and I want that you devise WOOP now to all the people I am working with.
So that’s a kind of dream story or whatever. But you never know maybe sometimes when you really get deep and you really understand gee, this is an obstacle which held me up for years. People might get very quickly and then they might feel kind of motivated to actually do it in daily life on a regular basis too. Some other people see that their awareness and their clarity in life grows and then, they do it on a regular basis. People have stopped smoking and lost a lot of weight, I mean if you had these benefits then you won’t lose it again.
But for some it might be a little less kind of immediate and for them, I mean what helps is just establish a daily ritual. Maybe do it the morning or do it in the evening before you go to bed. Take these five minutes same place, same time and just go through it. It’s really a short time so it’s not like you need to establish a kind of routine, jogging for an hour or something. So it’s not so complicated - or going to the gym all the time or something. But do it at the same place, at the same time, trying to establish a ritual. And then you don’t need to be perfect and WOOP changes with life, so don’t go back to your old wish and say, oh, I need to redo it now. Just always think about what is my wish for today? For next week? Because these wishes, they come from our needs. We have done research showing that when you make people kind of deficient, for example, with respect to water, or with respect to meaning, then that positively fantasize about taking care of this deficiency. So the positive fantasies come from our needs. And you can trust that these wishes come from our needs. And since life changes all the time, it’s a constant change and you develop, these needs are different. So your wishes come from these needs. Now, you might have kind of chronic needs because just from your background. And then let it be, the wishes come and WOOP them and you don’ t need to think, okay, I need to fulfill that wish now. That’s not the issue. It’s very unevaluative. It’s very unperformance. Just take it in order to lead a more pleasant and constructive and fulfilling life, that’s all. So you don’t need to be perfect. You can WOOP as many wishes as you have, and you probably have a lot of wishes. So take it easy, take it unevaluative, take it as a friend whom you can always ask and say, what do I really want out of this situation? Why I’m here? And so that’s the idea, to have a friend who kind of replaces a lot of maybe coach, or therapist, or trainer. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t see a therapist, if you feel you should see a therapist. Actually you can WOOP seeing a therapist if you’re in a difficult state.
But take it as a daily help. And once you understand that it’s really a daily help, you will do it anyway. And you can do it under stressful situations. So sometimes, stress is such that you. Forget everything because you’re so focused and so stimulus respondent. Or when you have too much in your life and you’re just torn between too many things. Then take this five minutes out and say, actually what do I really want? What is it that I really want here? And then you will see that it will help you enormously to get a little distance. To collect yourself, to get more aware and to say okay, that’s what I want. And then you can go ahead and look at outcome obstacle plan. But don’t switch the Os.
Because our research shows that once you switch Os it doesn’t work anymore. The reason is you only can discover obstacle in the framework of the outcome. So you need to throw the ball into the future first then you will see what in the reality is the obstacle. But if you first think about the party, you will think about how nice it will be and who will be there, and what you will wear or whatever. And then you think about the good grades in the exam but it doesn’t nothing.
So you need first the exam then you discover, oops, the party is now the obstacle.
Awesome, well, both for clarifying your needs and for putting this into a practice in a way where you automatically get through them. I think it’s a technique that a lot of the folk who are taking this course are going to use a lot. So thank you so much for sharing tonight. Again, we encourage everyone in the courses we have and our lectures to check out woopmylife.org where there’s a lot more how to tips, frequently asked questions about WOOP and so on.
Yeah, and you can share your experiences and if you have questions, write via WOOP My Life, we will always get it and we will always respond.
Fantastic. Thank you so much for joining us today, I really appreciate it.
Thank you for having me.
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