Douglas LaBier: Does Imagining a Goal Make You Less Likely to Achieve It?

Does Imagining a Goal Make You Less Likely to Achieve It?

From the page: “A common theme among self-help teachings and new age spiritual ideas, such as “The Secret,” is that you have the power within you to make your “dreams” come true by focusing your mental energy, your “intent,” on them. Then, they will come to you. But some new research claims that doing so can actually make you less likely to achieve what you wish for.

The research says that fantasizing about achieving goals makes you less likely to achieve them because it drains the energy you need to pursue them. I think the research is as flawed and distorted as “The Secret” and similar teachings, but for very different reasons. Let’s take a look.

This study, from New York University’s Motivation Lab, found that “positive fantasies” predict poor achievement because they don’t generate the energy to pursue the desired future. That is, if you create idealized images of future outcomes, your fantasized ambitions are less likely to become reality. That’s because positive fantasies are de-energizing.

The research contains so many confused ideas and faulty assumptions that it’s hard to know where to begin. But it does, indirectly, open a door to understanding some important elements for turning your goals into reality.

Ironically, the popular idea it’s based on — that visualizing your goals with enough “intent” will make them happen — is itself a twisted and misunderstood version of an ancient spiritual perspective. But this new research also confuses a “positive fantasy” with visualizing a goal or objective. They are different. And the research also misunderstands what you need to turn a vision into a reality.

The research was done using college students (that’s typical, for academic research, which is then extrapolated to people of all life stages and all post-21 experiences, but that’s another story). Researchers examined the effect of experimentally induced “positive fantasies” about the future in four different studies.

For example:

— Women were asked to fantasize positively about looking and feeling good in high-heeled shoes (I know — I’m not even going to try commenting on the merits of that “Mad Men”-era “positive fantasy”).

— Some participants were asked to fantasize positively about winning an essay contest.

— And some were asked to describe a positive outcome for the week ahead, including imagining getting “A” grades, or being sought after by a desirable sexual partner.

The researchers decided to induce these “positive fantasies” because they assumed that those are the most desirable things one would want to achieve. Note that they’re actually acquisitions, or accolades for looking good, or getting recognition for oneself. I don’t see any “positive fantasies” such as, say, creating a new, useful iPhone app or having created a service to feed malnourished children. But more about that later.

The researchers measured the effect of positive fantasies upon systolic blood pressure. They had decided that would be a good measure of “low energy,” that “low energy” would indicate that positive fantasies translate into poor achievement.

That is, the assumption was that people’s “energy,” defined by this measure, decreased as the participants engaged in positive fantasies, compared with another group who looked upon the fantasies with more skepticism. The latter group included women who were asked to fantasize more critically about the pros and cons of wearing trendy, high-heeled shoes, people who were asked to fantasize more negatively about their prospects for winning the essay contest and those who were asked to just daydream about the coming week rather than fantasize about a hot date or getting “As.”

In short, researchers concluded that positive fantasies result in less energy than fantasies that question the desired future. That is, that positive fantasies will drain the energy you need for doing the work that will make them achievable.

What you can draw from this study is grossly misleading, at best. And that applies to its definition of desirable goals — what it means by a “positive fantasy” and its assumption about what really helps achieve your goals or objectives. But through its flaws it illuminates some important things that are helpful to know about how you can, in fact, increase the possibility of achieving a desired dream….”

Great read.

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