Visualizing Winning Can Make Us Snooze & Lose
Is an officer more likely to get promoted if she visualizes herself as a highly regarded patrol sergeant? Is a recruit more likely to qualify on the range if he visualizes getting the Academy’s highest score? Is an officer more likely to survive the emotional stressors of policing if he visualizes himself as happy and serene?
The Self-Help Movement’s Answer
If you listen to the ubiquitous self-help movement the answer to these questions is a resounding, “Yes!” Self-anointed self-help gurus call it the “law of attraction.” The law of attraction posits that you can attract anything you visualize consistently. It is often “preached” in the context of attracting material wealth and success as indicated in some of the well-known books on the subject like:
- The Science of Getting Rich by Wallace D. Wattles
- Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill
But many self-help gurus insist that visualizing what you want to have or be in life can attract not just wealth but also health and happiness. This notion was widely popularized in 2006 in a movie entitled The Secret and a 2007 book by the same name. The movie drummed up the attention of mass media from Oprah to Larry King.
In August 2008, Esther and Jerry Hicks's book Money and the Law of Attraction: Learning to Attract Health, Wealth & Happiness appeared on the New York Times Best Seller list. Workshops that teach you how to just say “Yes to Success” or “Ask, Believe, and Receive” abound.
There are a couple of problems with the law of attraction. First, it’s not a law. There is no science to support the proposition that visualizing success or anything else will somehow metaphysically attract it. Reports are purely anecdotal, subjective and self-selecting (those who preach this point to their own success, which, ironically, comes from getting “losers” to buy their book or workshop).
There’s also a flip side to the law of attraction that the self-help gurus prefer to dodge. Do innocent civilians killed in Afghanistan mentally attract their bad ends? How about cancer patients (that have not engaged in high risk behavior), the passengers of an airliner that crashes or patrons in a café randomly gunned down by Mexican drug cartel members?
Another problem is there is now scientific evidence that saying “yes to success” can actually lead us to failure. In truth, the more you visualize having accomplished a goal – the more you see, hear, smell, taste and touch it in your mind — the less likely you are to achieve it. Such mental make believe actually lulls you into a sugar, sated, fairyland of happy sloth.
The Scientific Answer
Psychologists Heather Barry Kappes and Gabrielle Oettingen conducted experiments using the scientific method and discovered the more you fantasize about having successfully achieved a goal or task, the less likely you are to put in the requisite work and effort. That’s because visualizing the successful outcome carries its own happiness and satisfaction, neither of which spark energy and effort.
I can so relate to that. Since I was nine years old I’ve wanted to be a renowned and celebrated author. In the decades since, I’ve endlessly fantasized about being on the New York Times best seller list, being nominated for a National Book Award, being a guest on Oprah. They are detailed visualizations. I love the feeling they produce — a high not unlike that brought on by slowly savoring an exceptional slice of cheese cake.
What these fantasies don’t do is put my butt in the chair. They don’t depict me with eye strain, brain strain, or stoop shouldered and stiff limbed as I stand up from my computer to stretch. They don’t make me, like Carolyn See in Making a Literary Life, resolutely pledge to write a thousand words a day, five days a week, for the rest of my life, and then visualize that.
My visualizations of success flush me with pleasure. But they don’t energize me. And there’s the rub.
According to research that Kappes and Oettingen built on, energy plays a key role in getting people to pursue and achieve desired outcomes. Kappes and Oettingen took that established idea further and determined that visualizations in which people mentally consummate a desired future, often through idealized paths, produces relaxation that accompanies actual achievement, rather than the effort that necessarily precedes it. Positive visualizations allow us to mentally experience a desired future in the present, thereby yielding low energy to pursue it in reality.
Kappes’ and Oettingen’s experiments further showed that positive visualizations about success in an endeavor resulted in lower energy and effort than neutral, questioning or negative visualizations (for example, college students who visualized a writing contest and questioned whether they would win).
Moreover, the more important and desired the successful outcome is, the more de-energizing winning visualizations are. Just as more effort is mustered in the pursuit of especially desirable outcomes.
Tailor & Turbo-Charge Your Visualization
If you’re looking for relaxation or wish to counteract anxiety or stress — and officers often are and should — positive outcome visualizations can be beneficial.
But if you want to harness the power of the mind in achieving and accomplishing goals, visualizations that depict obstacles, problems, setbacks and the industry needed to meet them are more beneficial to actually sparking energy and the resulting effort. That is, visualize the means rather than the ends.
Want to lose weight and get stronger and healthier? Rather than fantasizing about ourselves in a bikini or Speedo with ripped abs we’d be better off visualizing ourselves preparing and eating healthy food and grunting and sweating on the elliptical and weight machines (okay, I think you can throw in a sweaty high five with your work out partner into the picture).
Don’t envision getting a great performance review. Instead, envision yourself mentoring other officers; being energetic in your traffic stops or investigations; following up and following through on specific tasks, volunteering for unpopular details.
Olympic athletes practice this kind of precision visualization. After a hard practice or training session, they may reward themselves with a fantasy of being at the top of the medal stand. But when it comes to harnessing visualization for performance purposes, they visualize themselves skiing the entire course – experiencing each bump and turn in their minds.
Shelley Taylor, Ph.D., a psychologist at UCLA, engaged students one week before a midterm exam. Some were told to spend 5 minutes each day visualizing themselves scanning the posted grade list, seeing their A, beaming with joy, and feeling proud. Another group was told to spend the same amount of time visualizing themselves effectively studying-reading the chapters, going over notes, eliminating distractions, declining an offer to go out. The second group began studying sooner, spent more time at it, and outperformed the first group on the test.
Leaders Provide the Energizing Visualization
Leaders provide vision. If you want to harness recruits’ or officers’ energy, don’t offer them a vision of success achieved. George Orwell, British author, captured poetically what science has more recently established.
"The high sentiments always win in the end, the leaders who offer blood, toil, tears, and sweat always get more out of their followers than those who offer safety and a good time. When it comes to the pinch, human beings are heroic."
Treat yourself to heroic visualizations of effort and overcoming adversity; not the self-help movement’s pabulum of snoozing and fantasizing health and wealth.