Systems & Tips

The Motivation Experts Are Wrong: Visualizing Success Can Actually Lead to Failure

If you’ve read a few time management or self-help books, you’ve heard the same mantra over and over: the way to motivate yourself is to intensely visualize the benefits of success.

“Close your eyes,” the experts say. “Picture a better version of you. Healthier. More attractive. Wealthier. Imagine how confident and happy you’ll feel.”

These experts tell you this is the key to success – but psychological research shows the startling truth: these methods of motivation actually have a negative effect on performance.

This is the case that Richard Wiseman makes in 59 Seconds, citing study after study with fascinating implications.

Students who visualized making good grades actually made poorer grades than others in the class. Obese people who pictured themselves being champions of willpower ended up losing less weight. Job seekers who fantasized about landing their dream jobs found fewer jobs and made far less money.

Wiseman points out:

Why should it be so bad for you to imagine yourself achieving your goals? Researchers have speculated that those who fantasize about how wonderful life could be are ill prepared for the setbacks that frequently occur along the rocky road to success, or perhaps they enjoy indulging in escapism and so become reluctant to put in the effort required to achieve their goals.

Visualizing the Process

Fortunately, Wiseman gives us some techniques of visualization that do work.

As we looked at earlier, students who visualized making good grades actually did worse. But students who visualized the process of making good grades did better than their classmates. The better approach was to picture what it would be like to study, to work on projects, and to write papers.

The effects were the same in other areas. Tennis players and golfers were more successful when they visualized practicing and training rather than winning.

The Best Approach

Wiseman directs us to what research shows as the best approach to motivation – something he calls doublethink. It involves simultaneously holding two seemingly contradictory thoughts: an optimistic view of the benefits of success and a pessimistic view of the trials and roadblocks that must be faced to get there:

The procedure is simple. People are asked to think about something they want to achieve, such as losing weight, learning a new skill, or changing their drinking habits. Next, they are told to spend a few moments fantasizing about reaching the goal and to note the top two benefits that would flow from such an achievement. After this, they are asked to spend another few moments reflecting on the kinds of barriers and problems that they are likely to encounter if they attempt to fulfill their ambition, and again, make a note of the top two issues.
Now comes the doublethink. People are asked to reflect on their first benefit, elaborating on how it would make their life more enjoyable. Immediately after, they are asked to think about the biggest hurdle to such success, focusing on what they would do if they encountered the difficulty. Then they repeat the same process for the second positive aspect of achieving their aim and the second potential problem.

I have to admit, I don’t really agree with Wiseman’s assessment of this as doublethink. I don’t see the two views as contradictory.

I think that deep inside the visualization is the understanding that success is going to be achieved  – not because of the absence of roadblocks, but because of triumph over the roadblocks. (In fact, the only way these two views wouldn’t be contradictory is for the visualizer to believe they will overcome obstacles.)

Next time, we’ll take a look at some specific motivational behavior that Wiseman researched. All of them are common techniques – but some led to success and some didn’t.

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