The Psychology Of Fitness

Mindsets, Body Types and Everything In Between
Tuesday Psych Post ~ How to Use Visualization

Tuesday Psych Post ~ How to Use Visualization

You may have heard that in order to achieve a goal, you should have a clear picture in your mind of what you want to achieve, imagine yourself getting it and how great you’ll feel when you get it.  Sounds like great advice on the surface and it’s been repeated so many times it’s almost gospel.  What does the research say on this topic though?  This article will explain what visualization is good for, what it’s not good for and if you’re going to use it, how to get the most benefit out of it.

What the Research Says about Visualization

“Researchers have speculated that those who fantasize about how wonderful life could be are ill prepared for the setbacks that frequently occur along the rocky road to success, or perhaps they enjoy indulging in escapism and so become reluctant to put in the effort required to achieve their goals.”  ~ Richard Wiseman from his book 59 Seconds

If you want to become happier, one of the easiest ways to do so is to imagine your ideal day.  A study by Laura King showed people who were asked to visualize their ideal but realistic day were much happier than those who hadn’t.  In fact, being grateful or focusing on the happiest times of your life are surefire ways to increase your happiness.

Should you do this to achieve your weight loss goals?

What about achieving your goals of making more money or weight loss?  Will visualizing make it more likely to hit your goals?  Let’s look at three studies (*all links in this article are to the full pdf studies).

1 – From Thought to Action: Effects of Process vs Outcome-based Mental Simulation on Performance

In this classic study about the effects of visualization, Lien Pham and Shelly Taylor had 3 groups of students.  One group visualized achieving a good grade and another simply was told to go about their day to day routine, but all had to monitor the time they spent studying and the researchers looked at their grades.  The group of people who had spent just a couple of minutes a day visualizing how good it would be to get good grades, did the worst on the exams and spent a considerable amount less time studying than those told not to do anything.  The third group, I will discuss later in the article.

2 – Revised: Expectation, fantasy, and weight loss:  Is the impact of positive thinking always positive?

Gabriele Oettingen has done a lot of research about what makes us take action, how it’s correlated with our goals and how we envision ourselves achieving those goals.  In this study of weight loss, she studied obese women who took part in a weight-loss program.  The study showed that the expectation of going through the process of achieving a goal, and the fantasy of wanting to achieve that goal are separate entities.  In English, this means that although desiring a goal will make you feel good, being “realistic” about what it takes to achieve the goal is much more important.  In fact, this study showed that those who had negative fantasies were shown to achieve more weight loss.

After a year, the women who had more positive fantasies (typical visualization and extreme willpower), weighed 26 pounds heavier than those that had negative fantasies (expecting to give into temptation).

3 – Picture Yourself at the Polls: Visual Perspective in Mental Imagery Affects Self-Perception and Behavior

This study used visualization to imagine the person going through the steps of voting from two different perspectives.  The first group had to imagine the steps of voting from a first person’s perspective (“I will go vote”) compared to a third-person’s point of view (how someone else would see you vote).  What this study showed is that those that saw themselves from a third person’s perspective went to vote at a rate of 29% more than those who saw themselves from a first person’s perspective.

Use Visualization to Your Advantage
Going back to the first study, about doing well on a test, the third group in the study was asked to imagine going through the process of studying.  Instead of imagining themselves as getting A’s, they were imagining the steps they would go through in order to get better grades.  This group did the best out of all 3 groups.

A study not previously talked about – Self-Regulation of Goal Setting – showed how to use visualization best.  In this study, the researchers had people think about something they wanted to achieve, such as losing weight.  Afterwards, they were told to spend a few moments fantasizing about reaching the goal and the top two benefits of achieving that goal.  This isn’t the same as fantasizing about hitting a goal, but instead to actually have a checklist of how life would be better.

So after the researchers got the participants to take part in listing the top two benefits of achieving their goals, they then had them list out the top two obstacles standing in the way of achieving their goal.

By having the participants focus first on their main benefit followed immediately by what they would do if faced with their biggest hurdle, the researchers showed that they were able to get the better results than if they hadn’t gone through these steps or went through them separately.

Three Take Home Points

After it’s all said and done, the take home points are simple.

1 – Don’t fantasize about achieving a goal, but instead about the process of achieving that goal. 

2 – In addition to that, imagine yourself going through that process from a third person’s perspective.  In other words, see yourself as someone looking at you would, going through the process.

3 – Last but not least, think of the top two benefits of hitting your goals (not the negative consequences), while also imagining what you would have to do to overcome the most likely barriers.  Going back and forth between these two things, the benefits and hurdles, you increase your odds of achieving your aim.   

By doing these three steps you are much more likely to actually achieve your goals.  In fact, after looking at the research again, the free reports that you receive when you sign-up include all of these steps in one place.  You can go to the Free Reports page here.

If you have any questions or comments about this article, let me know by leaving a comment below.

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