Visualization’s rights and wrongs

Since publishing What’s Stopping You? in April 2011 I’ve received over 300 emails from readers. Nearly always these have been positive stories of progress, although – of course – there’s been the occasional complaint, usually about a specific aspect that’s troubled them.

Yet I recently received an email that troubled me. A key concept in the book was being attacked – not by the emailer but by researchers in psychology (that he was pointing out). Visualization was not all it seemed, they claimed. Experiments had been conducted that showed “positive daydreaming” having a potentially-negative impact on goal-attainment. Those indulging in visualization for future goal-attainment can start behaving as if they’ve already obtained their perfect future, the experiments seemed to reveal, which can lead to complacency.

The key claims came from researchers Heather Kappes and Gabriele Oettingen. Publishing in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, they stated that visualization of future goals was counterproductive. That, far from helping people succeed, it did the opposite. Over four experiments, Kappes and Oettingen backed up their claims by demonstrating that fantasizing about positive success drained the energy out of ambition. Our brains would fall for the trick and relax, they said, and behave as if already there (rather than gear-up for the journey). Our blood pressure lowers, our heart rate decreases, we experience well-being: all from imagining success, they claim.

The research showed that participants told to visualize attaining goals throughout the course of a week ended up attaining far fewer goals than those told to consider the week’s challenges how they liked. The positive visualizers also reported feeling less energetic than the control group, and physiological tests supported their claim.

Oh dear! So has a major plank for the “recovering High-FF” (as I call those with fear of failure) been debunked? Certainly, I agree that care is required. As I warn in the book, indulging in impossible “dream fulfilment” fantasies – often as encouraged by the self-help industry – is a dangerous game likely to make the situation worse, not better. Indeed, High-FFs can be prone to such fantastic indulgencies in order to mask their fears – reducing the potential humiliation of failure by perhaps pitching for goals that are all but unobtainable (such as pop-stardom).

But junking visualization totally seems a stretch to me.

As previously stated (including in the book), the self-help industry’s propensity for hyper-titling (Unlimited Power etc), over-promising and for generating some form of rebirth is harmful for vulnerable people, who may be desperate for a cure. Realism is required, as well as an acceptance that “you are who you are”.

My aim is to help High-FFs navigate the mental barriers erected in their heads (only some of which are acknowledged). And, as stated, I think some of the self-help industry’s methodology useful in this respect – especially when trying to calculate how best to make progress.

So – absolutely – that old NLP trick of future-visualization is still worth adopting for recovering High-FFs trying to look ahead after a lifetime of failure and frustration. Indeed, I would refute the claims of the experimenters for one key reason: they undertook their tests on healthy individuals.

For High-FFs, experiencing something of the joy of arrival is encouraging. In fact, it’s a must. Fear and anxiety have given them the opposite feeling for too long. And if they’ve visualized success based on their true values – not those fed to them by popular culture (or self-help gurus) – they’ll be motivated by such feelings because they’ve spent a lifetime experiencing the purgatory of fear. So anything that can offer a positive mental lift – showing them what achievement feels like – will be encouraging, believe me!

For me, the notion that High-FFs would become complacent after visualizing a goal 10 years’ hence is ridiculous. The opposite is the key danger in my view – that they’d immediately dismiss their imagined goals as unobtainable or somehow beyond them. Barriers would immediately appear – if not for real then imagined. And that’s why I’m keen High-FFs undertake the intermediary visualizations to fill in the time-gap between now and then. After 10 years, we need to think about five, then two, then one – until we’ve mentally drawn a detailed path between our long-term goal and our current status.

This turns the imagined long-term objective into a practical route, which should – indeed – give us some of the sensation of arrival, or more accurately the sensation of being on a worthwhile journey. And, yes, we should be careful about the notion of “arrival”. My version of visualization is a continual process. The exercise is annual, so we’re always 10-years from achieving our goal – we’re always looking for the milestones. Goal-setting, in this sense, is not a destination. It’s a mindset.

So the High-FF’s chief worry – in my view – is not complacency. Even for the first few steps, what Mike Dooley calls the “dreaded hows” can disable the positive mindset that visualization is meant to generate. And this is a far greater problem than any self-imagined success leading to complacency (by which they really mean self-delusion, which I equally agree is a problem).


Visualization and depression

Yet the problems with visualization are not over I’m afraid. In their paper Emotional Consequences of Positive Daydreaming: The Moderating Role of Fear of Failure, Thomas A. Langens and Heinz-Dieter Schmalt of the University of Wuppertal in Germany argue that the emotional consequences of visualization or “positive daydreaming” may be harmful. And this is especially the case, they claim, on people with fear of failure because it may induce negative emotions.

Their experiments showed that “individuals high in fear of failure who had recurrent positive daydreams about attaining agentic personal goals reported increased levels of depression and confusion”. What’s more, further studies found that High-FFs revealed “reductions in goal commitment after participants imagined the successful attainment of an agentic personal goal”. And then there was the fact “participants high in fear of failure reported fewer daydreams about attaining a personal goal when they were strongly committed to attain this goal”.

This is highly condemning. My response? Well, let’s take each in turn.

  1. Visualization can lead to depression. I agree. In the book I’m very concerned that we avoid fantasizing “dream fulfilment” goals because they will, indeed, depress us (although – given masking – we may have chosen them for the very reason they were unobtainable). Visualization is an aid to goal-setting – no more. It is to allow vague notions to become detailed plans. Visualization allows us to work backwards from an imagined goal, which is a far easier mental exercise than looking forward into the unknown. We start with an imagined point in the future – visualize it in detail – and then work our way back. In this respect, they’re an aid to realism, not fantasy.
  2. Visualization produced reductions in goal commitment. If fantasizing, I’m not surprised. This is a form of goal-setting masturbation that will obviously deflate our drive. By this, I’m not saying “get real” and lower your sights. Instead, I’m saying that we need to set goals that are in-tune with our core values. Indeed, in the book I insist this is the case. Values matter because, without them, we’re almost certainly setting ourselves up for failure. We also need to understand why we value certain goals (perhaps because we perceive they offer self-esteem) and focus on that deeper motivation. So visualization is not a casual exercise. The aim is to uncover hidden motives as well as to generate detailed plans.
  3. The fewer the daydreams the stronger the goal attainment. Again, I’m not surprised. As stated, visualization is to generate detailed plans for the next 10 years, as well as a series of actions that should help us over the next 12 months. Once done, we can focus on the practicalities – indeed, on Mike Dooley’s “dreaded hows” – perhaps via a strategy and some tactics,  though only for the early stages. Keep visualizing, and we’re in danger of, indeed, becoming a fantacist, which will kill our progress and, ultimately, depress us.

In the end, visualization is there to clear the High-FF fog – to make sure our activities have purpose and direction. It’s not an aid to fantasy but an aid to planning. That said, I note the concerns and may strengthen the caveats in future writing. As for those emails – please keep them coming.


Comments 3

  1. Post
  2. Dwelling over rejection is a waste of time. We have a lot of responsibilities and important things to do with our lives. Getting another date with that hot man you hardly know is not one of those things.

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