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WOOPing along: an excellent way of helping us achieve our goals

Gabrielle Oettingen has recently published her new book "Rethinking positive thinking: inside the new science of motivation".  It's already available in hardback & Kindle, and is due out in paperback later this year.  WOOP is an acronym for Wish-Outcome-Obstacle-Plan and is a facelift for the less catchily named (but highly researched) MCII, itself an acronym for Mental-Contrasting-with-Implementation-Intentions.  There's a helpful associated website which comments "Woop is a scientific strategy that people can use to find and fulifill their wishes and change their habits" and "(Woop) is also known as Mental Contrasting with Implementation Intentions (MCII) in the scientific literature.  It was created as a result of over 20 years of scientific research and has proven to be effective across ages and life domains".  The website provides helpful links to 13 relevant full text articles and citations to about a further 70.

I've used Gabrielle Oettingen's ideas and those of her husband Peter Gollwitzer for many years - see the blog posts (and associated handouts) "Implementation intentions & reaching our goals more successfully" and "Mental contrasting: a way to boost our commitment to goals we care about".  In the first of these posts, I wrote "Implementation intentions are effective.  In a recent study on encouraging physical exercise (Stadler, Oettingen et al. 2009), people taught implementation intentions (and a method called "mental contrasting") rapidly outperformed an information only control group.  At four month follow-up they were still exercising at twice the rate of the control group.  Other studies have found significant benefits in a host of other behaviours including eating/dieting, alcohol misuse, smoking, cancer self-examination checks, achieving personal goals, new year resolutions, academic & reading goals, work intentions, recycling, safe driving, combating prejudice, and several other areas.  A recent meta-analysis (Gollwitzer and Sheeran 2006) concluded "Findings from 94 independent tests showed that implementation intentions had a positive effect of medium-to-large magnitude (d=.65) on goal attainment.  Implementation intentions were effective in promoting the initiation of goal striving, the shielding of ongoing goal pursuit from unwanted influences, disengagement from failing courses of action, and conservation of capability for future goal striving.  There was also strong support for postulated component processes: Implementation intention both enhanced the accessibility of specified opportunities and automated respective goal-directed responses."  The authors also commented that  "Implementation intentions appear to have stronger effects for people with psychological problems compared to the other groups ... This finding suggests that forming implementation intentions is especially beneficial to goal attainment among people who have difficulties with regulating their behavior."  

Gabrielle Oettingen & Peter Gollwitzer are an interesting "power couple" - both professors in both Hamburg and New York.  Their university websites are treasure troves of knowledge - so much further good research has been published on these methods since the 2006 meta-analysis.  Gollwitzer's NYU site is rich in information - see, for example, their 2015 paper "Self-regulation of time management: Mental contrasting with implementation intentions" with its typical (and successful) MCII/WOOP instruction to people trying for more effective time management "Participants named and wrote down the most positive aspect associated with solving their concern (an important task they wished to work on) in the next week. They had to hold this aspect in their mind, really thinking about it, and to write down all the thoughts and images associated with it in vivid detail. Next, they named the most important obstacle that stands in the way of solving the concern in the next week, vividly elaborated on it, and wrote their thoughts and images down. Following this, they were asked to name a behavior which they could do to overcome the obstacle and to create a plan in the format of “If (fill in the named obstacle), then (fill in the named behavior).” Finally, they were prompted to make their plan more specific by adding the time and location where the obstacle usually appeared and asked to repeat the plan once more in their mind’s eye."  Other recent gems include "Weakness of the will: Is a quick fix possible?", "Self-regulation strategies improve self-discipline in adolescents" and the excellent overview "Strategies of setting and implementing goals".  In the latter paper, other aspects of successful goal setting are also noted - for example a.) framing goals to promote positive outcomes rather than to prevent negative ones (promotion v's prevention goals, Higgins 1997); b.) attempting to acquire competence rather than demonstrating that one already has it (learning v's performance goals, Dweck, 1999); c.) anticipating internal v's external rewards (intrinsic v's extrinsic goals, Ryan & Deci, 2000); d.) proximal & specific rather than distant & vague (Bandura & Schunk 1981; Locke & Latham 2002).  Oettingen's NYU site contains similar & also some additional offerings.

What's not to like?  I'll go further.  If you're a health professional in the business of trying to help people make healthy life changes, you should know about the "psychological technology" of WOOP; and if you're "general public" (as we all are) trying to make useful life changes (as pretty much all of us sometimes do), then WOOP is good to explore.  See the next blog post "How to WOOP" for practical ideas on this.



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