You Should Visualize Positive and Negative Outcomes More

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“Just try to visualize success.” For many people, a sentence like that elicits an uncontrollable wince. There’s just something so lame about the idea of imagining what you want to have, and thinking that this will lead to your attaining it — things can’t possibly be that simple.

Well, things aren’t that simple, of course. But there actually is some research to suggest that visualization exercises, a term I’m using loosely to describe anything involving visualizing or imagining a particular scenario or outcome, can be helpful in various contexts. Such exercises may have a woo-woo reputation, partly because of how terrible the Oprah-approved The Secret is, but that reputation isn’t entirely warranted — especially when you realize both positive and negative visualization exercises seem to hold some power.

For an example of positive visualization exercises working, take a new meta-analysis in The Journal of Positive Psychology on interventions designed to increase people’s levels of optimism. As Christian Jarrett reports in an interesting post on BPS Research Digest, a lot of the studies examined in the meta-analysis looked at the so-called “Best Possible Self Intervention” — let’s call it the BPSI — in which participants were instructed to spend about a half-hour “Imagining yourself in the future, after everything has gone as well as it possibly could. You have worked hard and succeeded at accomplishing all the goals of your life …” Others studies examined “CBT, mindfulness, self-compassion training, and also some quirky approaches like lying on a bed of nails and sensory isolation.”

Jarrett sums up the results thusly:

Aggregating the results from all these studies revealed a small but significant increase in optimism for participants who received an intervention, as compared with control participants. Focusing on just those studies that used the Best Possible Self Intervention, this effect grew to medium in size. Shorter interventions actually seemed to be more effective than longer ones, but this is probably just because the most effective approach – Best Possible Self is typically very short. Indeed, there is a problem with looking for patterns in aggregated results, like this study does, because different factors that seem to have an effect on outcomes can be confounded with each other, such as the nature of the intervention and the length of intervention. [emphasis mine]

Overall, the researchers don’t think a BPSI is going to permanently supercharge anyone’s optimism level, but it does seem to at least help in the short term. And what’s interesting is the similarity between this intervention and other forms of visualization exercises that have shown promise.

One example is WOOP, the system that NYU psychologist Gabriele Oettingen developed to help people reach their goals without succumbing to the complacency sometimes induced, according to her research, by standard-issue positive thinking. WOOP is a four-step process for achieving a challenging goal in which the letters stand for Wish, Outcome, Obstacles, Plan. The middle two steps, Outcome and Obstacles, specifically involve imagination or visualization: During the Outcome step, you imagine the best-case scenario of how it will feel when you accomplish the goal you have in mind, while the Obstacles step involves conjuring up, well, obstacles that could prevent you from getting there (you can read an excerpt of Oettingen’s book Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation here, or a post by Melissa Dahl on WOOP here).

WOOP involves both positive and negative visualization, but some advice in this genre focuses more on imagining negative outcomes. Organizational psychologists, for example, have long been interested in the problem of groupthink. When a bunch of co-workers get together to come up with a plan, and no one feels empowered to say, “What could go wrong if we enact this plan?,” disastrous consequences frequently ensue. That’s why the decision expert Gary King, along with his colleagues, developed what they call a “Project Premortem.” As he explained in Harvard Business Review in 2007:

A typical premortem begins after the team has been briefed on the plan. The leader starts the exercise by informing everyone that the project has failed spectacularly. Over the next few minutes those in the room independently write down every reason they can think of for the failure—especially the kinds of things they ordinarily wouldn’t mention as potential problems, for fear of being impolitic. For example, in a session held at one Fortune 50–size company, an executive suggested that a billion-dollar environmental sustainability project had “failed” because interest waned when the CEO retired. Another pinned the failure on a dilution of the business case after a government agency revised its policies.

Next the leader asks each team member, starting with the project manager, to read one reason from his or her list; everyone states a different reason until all have been recorded. After the session is over, the project manager reviews the list, looking for ways to strengthen the plan.

All these practices have solid research behind them — the act of forcing yourself to sit down and visualize the future seems to have some very real effects. Again, it’s important not to veer into Secret-land, into silly claims about effortlessly willing your preferred reality into existence. But these techniques really can be harnessed to your benefit if you know how.