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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 09-Nov-14


Sunday 09-November-14

Over-believing, closure and the dangers of visualization

Do you ever use visioning, visualization or other methods of instilling confidence and belief in yourself or others? It is a common method and can be very helpful in creating a strong motivation. The basic approach is to imagine a future state that you want to happen. This can include you being somehow different, for example more confident.

However, if you get this wrong, it can have a rather counterproductive effect.

Imagine that you want to travel around Europe. You spend many moments dreaming of being in Paris, Rome and so on. You imagine skiing in Switzerland and strolling in London. Overall, it is a rather enjoyable activity. But does this lead to you going out there and booking the tickets, getting on the plane and indulging in this very desirable vision? Not necessarily. In fact too much fantasizing can lead to too little action.

The great thing about fantasy is that it is fantastic. When you imagine a desirable future, you can add anything you like to it. The weather, of course, is always perfect. You can get into scrapes but always get out smelling of roses. You can have any company you like, and everyone thinks you are wonderful. Reality, of course, it not quite as nice. It rains. People aren't always that nice. And trouble can be real trouble. We know this, and comparing the fantasy with the potential reality can lead us to decide to stay in the fantasy and give reality a miss.

This is the trap that fantasists fall into as they live their entire lives in imaginary worlds. The same effect happens with people who spend their lives watching TV, movies or getting engrossed in video games. Our imaginations are just so powerful, they can seduce us into a too-comfortable cocoon.

Another effect of visualization, even if we do not get trapped by the fantasy, is that, having thought about a desirable future, we mentally 'close' on it. This results in the tension of desire fading as we experience the satisfaction of having achieved the goals, even though in reality we are still just as far away as ever.

Researchers Kappes and Oettingen showed this effect in several experiments:

  • They asked women either to fantasize about high-heeled shoes or to discuss the pros and cons of them. Those who fantasized were found to end up with lower energy about following up with a purchase.
  • Students asked to think about winning an essay competition ended up less energised than those who imagined less positively about this.
  • People who fantasized positively about the week's work actually ended up achieving less during the week than those who thought less positively about it.

This can seem counter-productive as negative thought can also be de-energizing. The implications are that things are never as simple as they seem as there are often additional factors that can be easy to miss. 

Kappes, H., and Oettingen, G. (2011). Positive fantasies about idealized futures sap energy. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47, 4, 719-729

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