Motivation and Emotion

, Volume 35, Issue 4, pp 403–412 | Cite as

Mental contrasting facilitates academic performance in school children

  • Anton Gollwitzer
  • Gabriele Oettingen
  • Teri A. Kirby
  • Angela L. Duckworth
  • Doris Mayer
Original Paper


Two brief intervention studies tested whether teaching students to mentally contrast a desired future with its present reality resulted in better academic performance than teaching students to only think about the desired future. German elementary school children (N = 49; Study 1) and US middle school children (N = 63; Study 2) from low-income neighborhoods who were taught mental contrasting achieved comparatively higher scores in learning foreign language vocabulary words after 2 weeks or 4 days, respectively. Results have implications for research on the self-regulation of commitment to solve assigned tasks in classroom settings, and for increasing academic performance in school children in low-income areas.


Mental contrasting Positive thinking Self-regulation Goal commitment Academic performance Behavior change Desired future 


  1. Adriaanse, M. A., Oettingen, G., Gollwitzer, P. M., Hennes, E. P., De Ridder, D. T. D., & De Wit, J. B. F. (2010). When planning is not enough: Fighting unhealthy snacking habits by mental contrasting with implementation intentions (MCII). European Journal of Social Psychology, 40, 1277–1293. doi:10.1002/ejsp.730.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Anderson, L. W., Jacobs, J., Schramm, S., & Splittgerber, F. (2000). School transitions: beginning of the end or a new beginning? International Journal of Educational Research, 33, 325–339.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Atkinson, J. W. (1974). Strength of motivation and efficiency of performance. In J. W. Atkinson & J. O. Raynor (Eds.), Motivation and achievement (pp. 193–218). Washington, DC: Winston.Google Scholar
  4. Bandura, A. (1977). Self-efficacy: Toward a unifying theory of behavioral change. Psychological Review, 84, 191–215.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: Freeman.Google Scholar
  6. Becker, B. E., & Luthar, S. S. (2002). Social-emotional factors affecting achievement outcomes among disadvantaged students: Closing the achievement gap. Educational Psychologist, 37, 197–214.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Bloch, D., & Merrit, J. (2003). The power of positive talk: Words to help every child succeed. Minneapolis, MN: Free Spirit Publishing.Google Scholar
  8. Blyth, D. A., Simmons, R. G., & Carlton-Ford, S. (1983). The adjustment of early adolescents to school transitions. The Journal of Early Adolescence, 3, 105–120.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Christiansen, S., Oettingen, G., Dahme, B., & Klinger, R. (2010). A short goal-pursuit intervention to improve physical capacity: A randomized clinical trial in chronic back pain patients. Pain, 149, 444–452.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Eccles, J. S., Lord, S., & Midgley, C. (1991). What are we doing to early adolescents? The impact of educational contexts on early adolescents. American Journal of Education. Special Issue: Development and Education across Adolescence, 99, 521–542.Google Scholar
  11. Gollwitzer, P. M. (1999). Implementation intentions: Strong effects of simple plans. American Psychologist, 54, 493–503.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Havighurst, R. J. (1948/1972). Developmental tasks and education. New York: David McKay.Google Scholar
  13. Johannessen, K. B., Oettingen, G., & Mayer, D. (2010). Mental contrasting of a dieting wish improves self-reported health behaviour. Manuscript submitted for publication.Google Scholar
  14. Känd, E. (2007). Unlimited confidence. Full immersion hypnosis. Hypnosis events, LLC. Retrieved from
  15. Kappes, A., & Oettingen, G. (2010). From wishes to goals: Mental contrasting connects future and reality. Manuscript submitted for publication.Google Scholar
  16. Kirk, D., Oettingen, G., & Gollwitzer, P. M. (in press). Mental contrasting promotes integrative bargaining. International Journal of Conflict Management.Google Scholar
  17. Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (1990). A theory of goal setting and task performance. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.Google Scholar
  18. Mischel, W. (1973). Toward a cognitive social learning reconceptualization of personality. Psychological Review, 80, 252–283.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Oettingen, G. (2000). Expectancy effects on behavior depend on self-regulatory thought. Social Cognition, 18, 101–129.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Oettingen, G., & Gollwitzer, P. M. (2001). Goal setting and goal striving. In A. Tesser, N. Schwarz (Vol. Eds.), M. Hewstone, & M. Brewer (Series Eds.), Intraindividual processes. Volume 1 of the Blackwell handbook in social psychology (pp. 329–347). Oxford, UK: Blackwell.Google Scholar
  21. Oettingen, G., & Mayer, D. (2002). The motivating function of thinking about the future: Expectations versus fantasies. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83, 1198–1212.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Oettingen, G., Mayer, D., Sevincer, A. T., Stephens, E. J., Pak, H., & Hagenah, M. (2009). Mental contrasting and goal commitment: The mediating role of energization. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35, 608–622.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Oettingen, G., Mayer, D., & Thorpe, J. (2010a). Self-regulation of commitment to reduce cigarette consumption: Mental contrasting of future and reality. Psychology and Health, 25, 961–977.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Oettingen, G., Mayer, D., Thorpe, J. S., Janetzke, H., & Lorenz, S. (2005). Turning fantasies about positive and negative futures into self-improvement goals. Motivation and Emotion, 29, 237–267.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Oettingen, G., Pak, H., & Schnetter, K. (2001). Self-regulation of goal setting: Turning free fantasies about the future into binding goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80, 736–753.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Oettingen, G., & Stephens, E. J. (2009). Fantasies and motivationally intelligent goal setting. In G. B. Moskowitz & H. Grant (Eds.), The psychology of goals (pp. 153–178). New York: Guilford Press.Google Scholar
  27. Oettingen, G., Stephens, E. J., Mayer, D., & Brinkmann, B. (2010b). Mental contrasting and the self-regulation of helping relations. Social Cognition, 28, 490–508.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Pajares, F. (2003). Self-efficacy beliefs, motivation, and achievement in writing: A review of the literature. Reading & Writing Quarterly: Overcoming Learning Difficulties, 19, 139–158.Google Scholar
  29. Schunk, D. H. (1991). Self-efficacy and academic motivation. Educational Psychologist, 26, 207–231.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Stadler, G., Oettingen, G., & Gollwitzer, P. M. (2009). Physical activity in women: Effects of a self-regulation intervention. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 36, 29–34.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Stadler, G., Oettingen, G., & Gollwitzer, P. M. (2010). Intervention effects of information and self-regulation on eating fruits and vegetables over two years. Health Psychology, 29, 274–283.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Stauffer, C. (n.d.). Beating school stress with positive thinking. Ezine @rticles. Retrieved from

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  • Anton Gollwitzer
    • 1
  • Gabriele Oettingen
    • 1
    • 4
  • Teri A. Kirby
    • 2
  • Angela L. Duckworth
    • 3
  • Doris Mayer
    • 4
  1. 1.Department of PsychologyNew York UniversityNew YorkUSA
  2. 2.Department of PsychologyUniversity of WashingtonSeattleUSA
  3. 3.Department of PsychologyUniversity of PennsylvaniaPhiladelphiaUSA
  4. 4.Department of PsychologyUniversity of HamburgHamburgGermany

Personalised recommendations