Reframing: Positive goals increase our chances of positive outcomes.

May 30, 2024

An owl flies over a maze with prized cheese at its centre

Have you heard the story about the owl and the cheese?

Once upon a time, there was a group of friends gathered at a party. The theme of the party was, "Social Psychology Research." After cake slices were passed around, it was time for the first round of games. Everyone (who had been asked to dress up as "Research Participants") was given a piece of paper with a maze drawn on it. They were instructed that their goal was to get their cartoon mouse from one side of the maze to the other. Whoever got their mouse to the end of the maze first, won.

The caveat: not everyone was given the same piece of paper. Half of them got a version where a cartoon owl loomed over the page, hunting the mouse. The other half got a version where a morsel of delicious cheese was awaiting the mouse at its destination.

Who do you think completed the maze faster: the ones running away from the owl or the ones running toward the cheese?

Answer: the cheese group!

And here’s the twist: this isn’t a story from friends at a party…it was a real study done in a lab with real research participants.

In 2005, two social psychologists named Ronald S. Friedman and Jens Förster published a paper on their study of whether anticipating positive outcomes (e.g. getting food) or avoiding negative outcomes (e.g. being food) would affect our capacity for creativity and problem-solving. Indeed, they did find a difference: we become more focused (and ultimately more successful) when we orient towards a specific positive goal – versus when we’re trying to move away from a negative state. Running toward the cheese resulted in more efficient problem-solving than running away from the owl. How can this be so?

When you think about it, this makes sense: running away from a threat doesn’t lead us anywhere specific, because it only matters that we are somewhere safe from the threat (even one as benign as a cartoon owl). As a result, we might not necessarily be much better off than where we started. On the other hand, when we are moving towards a positive goal, we become more focused in our attention and efforts. We keep our commitment and stay consistent in our efforts which eventually build up to more. We thrive.

The takeaway? We need cheese – or rather, we need positive goals to increase our chance of positive outcomes.

A typical emergency exit sign with an arrow pointing a running figure to the way out

How does this relate to the way we deal with conflict? Well, conflict tends to be uncomfortable, painful, messy, and exhausting – we would like nothing more than to be done with it. As a result, the reflexive response often is, get me out of here! However, we might unwittingly be setting ourselves up to run from a cartoon owl: frantically looking for exit strategies and shortcuts, to reach a place where we are indeed safe from the conflict but not necessarily in the best way. We might be relieved, but not truly satisfied. And with repetition, this can unwittingly develop into bad habits or pattern of avoidance.

Instead, we want to orient towards the “cheese” or positive goal of conflict resolution: to creatively collaborate with others and find a mutually agreeable, win-win solution. If we feel empowered and resourced to deal with disagreements and disputes head-on, then we can find a path forward with curiosity and a willingness to listen.

Can you think of an uncomfortable situation in your life that could stand to be reframed through a positive goal-oriented perspective? Clearly outlining our goals when we step into conflict resolution helps us to stay focused and committed to the process – and increases the chances of a positive outcome.

It’s not uncommon to feel overwhelmed by the stress, despair, and frustration that conflict can bring to the surface. We feel these feelings because we care about the outcome and about who is involved. But it doesn’t have to be this way: let’s channel the energy of our emotions into pointing ourselves toward what we truly want: resolution.

Resolution is possible – even if it might initially feel like a stretch. If you’re not sure where to start, Mediation Services can help with that. Our free webinar Conflict 101: Demystifying Conflict Through a Psychological Approach explains the undercurrents of what’s at play when conflict arises.

Once you understand the basics, it becomes time to apply them in your own life. We have ongoing training programs to support this both online and in-person, addressing specific applications of conflict resolution in the workplace and other social situations. Join us and take a step towards your positive goals.

If you have questions,
please don’t hesitate to call.


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