Mental Contrasting, a Way of Avoiding Naive Optimism

Mental contrasting is a really useful strategy to use. It employs the moderate dose of optimism that you need for fueling your motivation. We talk about how to perform this technique and take advantage of its results.
Mental Contrasting, a Way of Avoiding Naive Optimism
Sergio De Dios González

Written and verified by the psychologist Sergio De Dios González.

Last update: 10 August, 2022

Mental contrasting is an exercise and perspective that helps you see things from a more realistic point of view. It can be a great tool to achieve your goals. It also opposes, to a certain extent, naive optimism.

Many texts speak of the benefits of optimism without specifying the conditions in which it occurs. In fact, sometimes, it’s thought that it’s enough to ‘think positively’ for everything to turn out well. This isn’t only naive, but also, in many cases, can be counterproductive to achieving your goals.

While a positive attitude and hope for good results can help you achieve any goal, it’s no less important to see the limitations of reality. Mental contrasting helps you adopt a perspective more attached to the facts of the matter, instead of relying on luck.

An idealist is one who, on noticing that a rose smells better than a cabbage, concludes that it makes a better soup.”

-H.L. Mencken –

Woman thinking
The contrast between desires and facts can help us pinpoint where to go.

Naive optimism

Being optimistic is healthy. It’s linked to feelings of hope. With hope, even if things go wrong, you don’t lose faith. This is an exceptionally motivating perspective.

However, a problem occurs when you expect that, if the course changes, some greater power will direct you to a place where your expectations will be fulfilled. This type of mental course is far removed from one where you make the necessary reflections yourself to modify or adjust events.

You might have ideas like “I was unlucky last time so this time I’ll be lucky again and destiny will be on my side”. In fact, it’s really common to think that good and bad luck has to be balanced. However, in reality, fate doesn’t always pay its dues.

However, we’re not saying that sometimes, letting events flow, isn’t a good idea. What we’re saying is that it’s important to be prepared to change course if necessary. In fact, respect the natural flow, but also be prepared to intervene and rearrange or amend the course of events.

Mental contrasting

Mental contrasting refers to the exercise of confronting plans and desires with the objective limits of reality. On the one side, is what you want to happen, and on the other, is the possibility of it happening. Contrasting one with the other helps you work with a more adapted vision of reality.

Mental contrasting helps you better identify the weakest points of your strategies. If you visualize a negative outcome, you can ask yourself why it happened. Answering this question will give you ideas for interventions that’ll increase the probability of obtaining the result you want.

Woman thinking
Mental contrasting helps you focus more on the facts, on reality.

The risks of autosuggestion and idealism

When you suggest to yourself that everything will be perfect, you’re imposing a pressure that might not only be excessive but also isn’t particularly enriching. Indeed, thinking of a reality and a world in which everything is harmonic, wonderful, and happy means you’re setting the bar too high, so high that you’ll never reach it.

Naive optimism often leads to disappointment. It means you expect so much of reality that, in the end, even a really good result doesn’t reach your levels of expectation. In those who profess psychic positivism as a religion, this is the reason behind autosuggestion. In fact, in extreme cases, these people believe that the force of their mind has the power to transform a negative into a positive in an almost magical way.

Obviously, if you want to live your life wearing rose-colored spectacles, you can do so. However, it’ll deprive you of the valuable lessons that are implicit in your mistakes and failures. In fact, in reality, you learn so much more from your stumbles than from your successes.

Success corroborates something you already knew while the mistake teaches you something new. That said, you should obviously, use mental contrasting sensibly. There’s an old adage that claims it’s always good to ‘hope for the best, but be prepared for the worst’. That’s what a realistic perspective is all about.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Batanero, C., & Díaz, C. (2015). Aproximación informal al contraste de hipótesis. Didáctica de la Estadística, Probabilidad y Combinatoria, 2, 207-214.
  • Vera-Villarroel, P., Pávez, P., & Silva, J. (2012). El rol predisponente del optimismo: hacia un modelo etiológico del bienestar. Terapia psicológica30(2), 77-84.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.