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.
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