Visualization for success – or failure!

Imagine for a moment that your holding half a cut lemon in you hand. Feel the weight of the fruit, see the citrus yellow of the textured skin. Now imagine bringing the lemon up to your nose and smelling it. Now imagine putting it in your mouth and sucking the sharp, bitter juice. Most people will be salivating by now because the unconscious mind doesn’t recognize the difference between an actual event and a strongly visualized one. That’s why visualization works; visualizing doing something activates the same neural pathways as when you actually perform that action.

There’s solid research showing that visualization is valuable for developing practical skills and it’s widely used in sport psychology. Visualization is a valuable tool in coaching and used correctly it can significantly enhance performance. Public speaking is classic example of a situation where visualization can help. Once you’ve done all the preparation – edited the Power Point slides and crafted a brilliant presentation – visualizing yourself successfully giving the talk can give you the edge.

It’s commonly assumed that because visualization is such a powerful tool we should use it in every situation. Simply visualize yourself passing your exams, and ‘hey presto!’, you pass. This is a myth and a dangerous one at that, because it can lead to failure. Research shows that simply visualizing success may be counter productive. Why? What if you were to consistently visualize exam success? You see the pass mark you want written next to your name; you imagine how good that feels and hear your friends congratulating you on your success. You’re telling your unconscious mind that you’ve already passed the exam with flying colours. That may be great for alleviating your exam anxiety, but it isn’t going to motivate you to do any studying! The research shows that these kinds of positive fantasies are de-energising, so are are likely to lead to worse outcomes overall. The bottom line:

“Instead of promoting achievement, positive fantasies will sap job-seekers of the energy to pound the pavement, and drain the lovelorn of the energy to approach the one they like” (Kappes and Oettingen).

There’s a crucial lesson here. Visualization can significantly enhance your chances of success, but if you choose the wrong context, visualization can just as certainly lead to failure. When should you practice visualization and when not?

  • Visualization can help reduce stress and anxiety, so ideal if that’s your short-term goal.
  • Visualization is great for mentally preparing for a practical task as part of a broader training programme. In my public speaking example, I emphasized that you need to have done all the preparation before you start visualizing success.
  • Visualization is not magic and you will not pass the exam, get a partner or a better job just by fantasizing about it. Sad, but true!

Using the power of intention is a different but related skill. There’s a lot to be said about that, so I’ll explore it in my next post. Meanwhile, if you’d like to experience the power of visualization, get in touch.

References:

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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