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Visualize Success If You Want to Fail
David DiSalvo / Source: Forbes
If you have been paying any attention to the self help industry lo these many years, you know that "positive visualization" is a trademark best practice with few equals.
What could be simpler? For one to succeed, one must visualize attaining the object of success. Few would quarrel with such perfunctory logic.
But could it be that the self-evidence of positive visualization is little more than a bookstore mirage? Though assumed true, it's hard to say exactly why the practice works–if it works.
Enter the latest round of research aimed at testing the mettle of self-help platitudes. Researchers Heather Kappes and Gabriele Oettingen, publishing in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, suggest to us that not only is positive visualization ineffective, it's counterproductive. A practice proffered to help us succeed may do just the opposite.
During the course of four experiments, Kappes and Oettingen demonstrated that conjuring positive fantasies of success drains the energy out of ambition. When we imagine having reached what we want, our brains fall for the trick.
Instead of mustering more energy to get "there," we inadvertently trigger a relaxation response that mimics how we would feel if we'd actually reached the goal.
Physiologically, we slide into our comfy shoes; blood pressure lowers, heart rate decreases, all is well in the success world of our mind's making.
The research also uncovers that the more pressing the need to succeed, the more deflating positive visualization becomes. One of the experiments tested whether water-deprived participants would experience an energy drain from visualizing a glass of icy cold water (a simple but elegant study design) and found that indeed, in even something so basic, the brain responds as if the goal has been reached.
From a "proof is in the pudding" standpoint, the research showed that participants told to visualize attaining goals throughout the course of the week ended up attaining far fewer goals than a control group told they could mull over the week's challenges any way they liked. The positive visualizers also self-reported feeling less energetic than the control group, and physiological tests supported their claim.
So if not crafting positive fantasies of success, what might be a better use of our time and imagination? Kappes and Oettingen suggest we try critical visualization, in which realistic obstacles, setbacks, and other decidedly not-so-positive factors are considered. Even failure itself, in all its rawness, should be thrown in and dabbled with as a possible outcome. As odd as it sounds, this research suggests that even random daydreaming is less deflating than positive fantasizing.
Ironically, shifting into positive fantasy mode is most effective when we need to decrease our energy expenditure, when, for example, anxiety is getting the better of us. In that case, the healthiest move is denying the fire more fuel, and it seems that positive visualization is a commendably effective tool for doing exactly that.
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