Why imagining success can make you fail


Positive visualization can lead to less than positive results, studies find. (Chung Sung-Jun/GETTY IMAGES)

Multiple studies over the years have actually shown that people who engage in “positive fantasies,” or idealized images of future outcomes, are less likely to achieve them. And a new study by researchers at New York University’s Motivation Lab takes a stab at why: Imagining these successful outcomes saps our energy from doing the hard work it takes to get there. (Hat tip to BPS Research Digest, a great blog for keeping up with interesting psychology research.)

In four studies, the researchers, Gabriele Oettingen and Heather Barry Kappes, looked at the effect on systolic blood pressure by a variety of “positive fantasies,” from students who imagined winning an essay contest to women who visualized themselves looking good in high heels. (Yes, really.) Each imagining of success resulted in lower systolic blood pressure, which the researchers say acts as an index for “cardiac contractility,” or the “most reliable response of the cardiovascular system for assessing energization.”In simple speak: When the positive visualizations increased, people’s energy decreased.

Even if you think winning an essay contest or looking good in high heels isn’t much of an achievement—and I always wonder how researchers come up with such scenarios—the study does have some good takeaways. The idea that visualizing your goals can help make them happen is a truism in many leadership development programs, and should be questioned. Leaders are perhaps too apt to think they can help their team reach their goals by painting a picture of what it will be like when they win—the bonus they’ll get, the adulations their higher-ups will give them, the promotion they’ll receive.

This is not to say praise and positive reinforcement is a bad idea. Hardly. People need to be reminded that a goal is at least possible. And it’s not to say that such idealized images don’t have a time and a place. As the researchers note, if relaxation is your goal—you’re stressed about a big presentation or filled with dread over an important meeting—positive images can help you lower the energy you’re exerting and potentially perform better.

Practically speaking, who knows how well a measure of systolic blood pressure when thinking about winning an essay contest really translates into how a team might do at finishing a software release on time or how an Army squad might do at winning a tough battle. I’m a little skeptical—even if, logically, it makes perfect sense that fantasizing some perfect achievement of your goal might sap a little energy needed to go after it.

At the very least, it’s a useful reminder that a healthy dose of skepticism and a realistic look at the odds you’re up against can do a lot more to help energize people toward a goal than a rosy image of a successful outcome. As the researchers write, less-positive fantasies—“those that question whether an ideal future can be achieved, and that depict obstacles, problems and setbacks—should be more beneficial for mustering the energy needed to attain actual success.” Even if success is just measured by looking good in high heels.

More from On Leadership:

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How sleep deprivation can make you unethical

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.

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