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Gabriele Oettingen and the art of WOOPing

The German-American psychologist talks about her empirically tested motivational strategy, which uses visualization techniques to help people develop good habits and break out of harmful ones

Oettingen is professor of psychology at New York University and the University of Hamburg

What if there was a simple strategy that helped rejig brain circuits to enable wish fulfilment? A science-based motivational exercise, WOOP, developed by German-American social psychologist Gabriele Oettingen, is gaining momentum across the world.

WOOP, which involves four steps -- finding a Wish, envisioning the Outcome, finding the Obstacles, and formulating a Plan -- is a kind of psychological strategy known as MCII (Mental Contrasting with Implementation Intentions), often used to help people find and fulfil wishes or change habits. Today, WOOP has 60,000 visits per month on the website (woopmylife.org), 77,000 WOOP app downloads, and a book.

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The 68-year-old Oettingen, a former German princess (her full name/ title is quite a mouthful: 'Princess Gabriele zu Oettingen-Oettingen and Oettingen-Spielberg') and currently Professor of Psychology at New York University and the University of Hamburg, has spent over 25 years researching ways to help motivate people to overcome mental obstacles. WOOP came out of Oettingen's research into hope and resilience in post-war Germany. Taking cues from positive psychology, she studied how people faced adversity and found reasons to smile.

The origins of WOOP

As a princess of the noble Oettingen-Spielberg family (one of the oldest existing families in Bavaria with a known lineage dating back to 1141), Gabriele’s father was the 9th prince of Oettingen-Oettingen and Oettingen-Spielberg. Public service and social work were instilled in her as a child. She started as a photographer and subsequently became a biologist at the Max Planck Institute for Behavioural Physiology. This period saw her deeply involved in understanding human behaviour.

Oettingen developed the 'fantasy realisation theory', which shows, through empirical experimentation, that mentally contrasting future and present realities evokes changes in cognition, emotion and behaviour. These cognitive and motivational processes outside of awareness are responsible for the workings of WOOP. “It is not that I set out to create a device like WOOP, it was just luck to discover this powerful principle. It is a small step towards giving back to society,” says Oettingen in an interview with Lounge.

How WOOP works

In a WOOP exercise, start by taking 15 to 20 minutes by yourself in a quiet place. Find an important WISH (feasible but challenging). Identify and vividly imagine the best OUTCOME(S). Ask yourself, “how would I feel fulfilling that wish?” Search for the central OBSTACLE(S) in you – ask yourself what is in the way? After identifying the central inner obstacle, vividly imagine it occurring. Next, think of the specific actions you can take to surmount the obstacle. Finally form a PLAN in the form of: “If… (I do this) obstacle, then I will… (get closer to the goal) action to overcome obstacle.” Imprint this plan in your mind.

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“The obstacles we think most impede us from fulfilling our wishes can help us realise them. WOOP instructs us to dream our future dreams (first) but (then) to imagine what obstacles in our psyche prevent us from achieving them,” says Oettingen. For example, if your wish is to lose weight, and the outcome is being fit, while the obstacle is finding time, then the plan would be, “If I got up early, then I would exercise.”

Important for the Outcome to come before the Obstacle

Oettingen stresses on the important of a wish within the realm of one’s control. “Don’t use WOOP for wishes outside your control as this principle also helps one comprehend wishes outside the sphere of influence,” she says.

In experiments, the team found that putting the future outcome against the obstacle tweaks non-conscious brain circuits “We did a lot of questioning on how mental contrasting works. Our research shows that focusing on both the desired future and the obstacle in yourself is helpful to get engaged, and to get out of passivity and hopelessness. Focusing on the desired future provides a direction to act, and focusing on the obstacle provides energy to act,” explains the social psychologist.

The technique posits that recognising the obstacle only works when one imagines the desired future followed by the impeding reality. "When you mental contrast or WOOP, these non-conscious processes are responsible for behaviour change,” explains the psychologist.

With the pandemic creating a barrage of negativity, can WOOP work? Pondicherry-based clinical psychologist Dr Pulkit Sharma says, “Oettingen’s approach makes sense -- when we are simply talking about positive thinking, that in itself cannot accomplish much at the base level of thoughts. Her approach tells you to focus on obstacles... it takes fantasy into action that turns into reality. There is a uniqueness in the approach.” He also says that while positive psychology has had principles similar to WOOP, the permutations were different.

For Woop user Kamakshi Sinha, Woop has helped her identify do-able wishes, though she faces hurdles in the “if and then plan” phase. Dr Sharma concurs, “All these approaches need intrinsic motivation. In my 17 years of experience, most approaches depend on you to change so it is not a magical power or formula, it needs burning desire.”

How to keep up spirits in the pandemic

Oettingen feels communication is key during these isolating times. For mental well-being, she advises that any form of physical exercise is important - walk, rise early, and move during breaks. “Change the context, leave the room several times, look at the sky, nature or listen to music. Occasionally, rearrange your environment – shift a chair, tidy the office corner. Contact friends and family. Even if you feel passive and down – just think about how nice it would be to get in touch with them, and how they would appreciate it. If they have been silent, maybe they are feeling as passive as you. Say, ‘I need you and I love you!’ This keeps us all going,” she says.

  • FIRST PUBLISHED
    03.08.2021 | 12:00 PM IST

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