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Don’t Visualize Your Success- Unless You Want to Fail


 

How many books, seminars, life coaches and experts have told you to ‘visualize positive outcomes’ or to ‘paint a picture of what you want to achieve in your mind’? Blogs and books like “The Secret” encourage both the unemployed and workers stuck in bad jobs to simply practice positive visualization. However, a recent study has just shown that positive visualization is not only ineffective, but actually harmful!

 

Researchers Heather Barry Kappes and Gabriele Oettingen conducted a study that he published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. The study wanted to test the validity of popular phenomenon’s like The Secret that encourage followers to repeat mantras, visualize success patterns and put pictures of triumph in their mind multiple times per day. It turns out these practices that are proffered to aid us in succeeding may indeed do the exact opposite.

 

The researchers conducted four different trials to see what effect conjuring positive fantasies would have on actual outcomes. Surprisingly, instead of these visualization practices encouraging participants—as many self-help gurus promise, the imaginings actually drained participants of ambition. They discovered that visualization actually does a very funny thing in the brain. Using the example of weightloss, here is how the visualization process works for the brain:

 

1) We have a goal to lose 10 pounds.

 

2) We are told to visualize the successful outcome of said goal by picturing ourselves as thinner.

 

3) Our brains see this outcome and actually falls for the trick, with all of the visualization our brain begins to believe we are already thinner.

 

*Here is where most self-help authors get it wrong. They also say that visualization tricks our brain into thinking we have already achieved our goal BUT they go on to say that this then makes the goal happen. For example, they would say step #4 is that our brain then makes us thinner to fit the visualization we have just convinced it of. Here is what actually happens:

 

4) Instead of matching the visualization and conjuring up energy to lose weight, our brain, trying to be efficient actually takes energy away from achieving the goal. Our brain triggers a relaxation response that mimics how we would feel if we achieved the goal.

 

5) Since we feel relaxed and accomplished, it becomes even harder to work towards achieving the goal, which we have not accomplished yet.

 

Visualizing actually sucks the energy out of our ambition and makes our brains more frustrated. This brain trick actually lowers our blood pressure and heart rate. This is why many people who follow visualization principles believe it works. They are anxious about achieving their goal, begin to visualize as directed and then feel more relaxed. Little do they know, this is because the brain is giving up on working towards the very goal they want to achieve.

 

I know this might be discouraging for some readers who have been using visualization practice for years. I shared this study with someone and they actually flat out rejected the response, saying it would be too hopeless for her to believe that all of the years of visualization might not have helped her (even hurt her).

 

As difficult and surprising as these findings might be, it is incredibly important for us to bust the myth regarding visualizations. Frighteningly, the researchers discovered that the more urgent the need to succeed, the less effective positive visualization becomes. For example, one of the trials the researchers conducted involved thirst. Researchers deprived participants (they volunteered for this!) of water so that they were incredibly thirsty. They then had them visualize a glass of icy cold water. They found that as participants visualized the water, the brain stopped trying to find water in the surroundings because it believed the goal had been achieved. The brain actually smothered a biological need to get water just from the visualization.

 

Furthermore, the participants who were told to visualize the successful attaining of goals throughout the course of a week ended up attaining far fewer goals than a control group who were told they could think about challenges and goals in any way they liked. The group that imagined their goals also had physiologically slower responses (heart rate and blood pressure) and reported feeling less energetic than the control group.

 

This study answers a big question: Does positive visualization work?  No.

 

But, in my mind, it also brings up some new ones. For example, can we use positive visualization to help ourselves relax in situations we cannot control? If someone is waiting to find out about results of a cancer screening test, can they imagine a positive outcome to simply get their heart rate and blood pressure down? We might be able to use positive visualization in ways that help us relax, even if they do not help us achieve our goals.

 

Citation:

Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Volume 47, Issue 4, July 2011, Pages 719–729

Positive fantasies about idealized futures sap energy. Heather Barry Kappesa, Gabriele Oettingena, New York University, Department of Psychology, 6 Washington Place, 7th Floor, New York, NY 10003, USA

Department of Psychology, University of Hamburg, Hamburg, Germany

About Vanessa Van Edwards

Vanessa Van Edwards is a published author and behavioral investigator. She is a Huffington Post columnist and her courses and research has been featured on CNN, Forbes, Business Week and the Wall Street Journal. As a published Penguin author, Vanessa regularly speaks and appears in the media to talk about her research. She is a sought after consultant and speaker.


  • jb

    very interesting. it makes sense to me and i’ve noticed these impacts in my own mind. like if i tell myself that something is easy i lose the motivation to push myself harder to do it. yet, i also think this says more about the quality of self-help advice than it does about the tools.

    it’s like the difference between susan jeffers saying the same affirmations for 37 years and the work of men like RJ. applied with little intelligence these tools are limited, yet in the hands of a master they change minds and lives.

    • RA

      The results make me wonder…I think the second control group just consisted of people who naturally knew how to visualize better than the group who was actually asked to visualize!
      My personal experience: visualization works for me. I just need to concentrate, really want it, and my brain makes me take the steps and I achieve the goal. You need to relax, see the outcome, be there for a moment and get back to an alert stage. The rest happens automatically. If your brain would feel comfortable with the current state believing you have obtained your goal already how would anyone claim that visualization would ever work? This would just be cheating yourself! What I think the study means is that the brain goes to a calm state so that it does n´t make you feel dicouraged about not having obtained the goal yet. Personally, this really works for me, because I am one of the people who, when negative just feel like giving up and not going on.

  • Teeka Tiwari

    This is fascinating to me because I’ve been using visualization since I was a child and it has been very successful for me. At 12 years old I was in Foster Care in the UK and I would sit in my room and fantasize for hours about moving to New York City and working on Wall Street as a broker.

    Within 4 years I was in NYC and two years after that I was working for Lehman Brothers. Two more years on I was making a six figure income as a broker. Maybe I’m the exception to the rule.

    Teeka Tiwari

    • Vanessa Van Edwards

      Thank you for reading! I am so glad it is relevant. There are always exceptions to the rule = )

  • Federica

    Though I’m not a fan of visualization, I can confirm I used it to lose weight. I imagined myself in a certain way and in details. After one year, I discovered, to my surprise, as I had given up visualizing long before, that I was even dressed the way I had imagined and my hairstyle, result from a hairstylist friend who did it without asking, was exactly as I imagined. I believe the study is not accurate; visualization is only one part of the process, letting go is an important part, as if you worry enough to let your soul believe you lack something, you concentrate more on your lack than achievement.

    • Vanessa Van Edwards

      Hi Federica,

      Thanks for posting your experience with visualization. I think personal stories always fall outside the research. I am sure there are many more like you who have found visualization helpful. I guess the results are not simple! Thanks for reading and commenting!

      Best,
      Vanessa

  • Myriam

    I first learned about visualization in the ’80s in an atricle about a study with basketball players. I have been vizualing since then with the knowledge that if what I want or need does not require physical training my mind will find the correct steps to take to aquire them. This has worked for my husband and I, we are teaching our son to do the same. Visualizing keeps the mind focus on your goals and helps you find solutions to aquire those goals.

  • Myriam

    I gather that visualizing that the goal has been reached is the key factor in NOT reaching the goal. That has to be why I have achieved what I visualize since I do NOT waste energy visualizing goals reached. Thanks for the article and I am glad I did not give in to those stating I should also visualize reaching the goal. It never made sense to me to feel the goal has been reached because I would not know how excited I would be when the actual goal was reached. : )

  • Pingback: Is There Power in Visualizing Your Goals? - Leadership & Lifestyle

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