In a recent post (What might have been), I discussed a way of looking back to the past called counterfactual thinking. In this post, I would like to start exploring the ways in which we look forward into the future and some of the pitfalls involved in that activity.
Being able to speculate about and imagine the future is an essential part of decision making and it should be an area of interest for anyone involved in supporting other people to make decisions.
However, the way we go about that speculation may have a profound impact on our ability to bring that future into existence.
Process versus outcome
One set of researchers (Taylor et al., 1998; Pham & Taylor, 1999) found that, for certain tasks, when people repeatedly visualise successfully completing the individual steps they will undertake to achieve a goal (process focus), they are more likely to achieve it than people who just keep imagining that they have attained the goal (outcome focus).
First person versus third person
Another group of researchers (Vasquez & Buehler, 2007) discovered that taking a third-person perspective in visualising a future achievement produced more motivation to succeed than a first-person perspective. This means that imagining that you are observing yourself working towards and achieving a goal from someone else’s viewpoint (for example, visualising yourself in the audience watching as you successfully deliver a presentation) is more motivating than picturing the process through your own eyes.
Expectation versus fantasy
Yet another group of researchers (Oettingen & Mayer, 2002) made a distinction between expectations, which take into account past performances and likely predictors of success, and fantasies, which are just idealised images of success or failure.
In one study, a group of students graduating from a German university were first asked to assess their chances of getting an appropriate job offer in their chosen field (expectation). They were then asked how often they had positive or negative thoughts, images or fantasies about the transition into work life, and were asked to describe them.
After two years, the researchers approached the graduates again and gathered information about their job hunting activities and their success in obtaining appropriate roles.
Alongside this study, they also looked at the role of expectations and fantasies in predicting the likelihood of patients recovering from hip surgery and that of students obtaining desired exam grades, or asking out someone they had a crush on.
In each study they found that people with positive expectations were more likely to succeed than those with negative expectations. This is fairly obvious because negative expectations are likely to be based on lack of success in the past and vice versa.
But here’s the interesting bit: those who indulged in positive fantasies were less likely to achieve their goals than those whose fantasies were predominantly negative.
Participants who reported frequently experiencing positive fantasies about their transition into professional life were less successful in their job search over a period of 2 years. They sent out fewer applications, were offered fewer jobs, and ultimately earned less money than students who reported frequently experiencing fantasies that picture entering professional life in a more negative tone.
The researchers speculate that positive fantasies can have a detrimental effect because they are enjoyable in the here-and-now, and these pleasurable daydreams may prevent people from engaging with the messy reality of preparing for the actual future. They suggest that a combination of positive expectations and negative fantasies could provide the most effective motivation for achieving one’s goals.
Another set of researchers (Langens & Schmalt, 2002) linked positive fantasies and lack of success to a high fear of failure. People who are more anxious about making a mess of things are less likely to take the risks required to bring about success. They may, therefore, be more likely to console themselves in positive fantasies about the future.
Wanting versus liking
A final study (Litt et al., 2009) looked at the impact of being denied something you want. They found that being ‘jilted’ increased the desire for an object (such as a prize for completing anagrams). However, when the participants in the study were eventually given their prize, they were much more likely to swap it for something else than the people who hadn’t been jilted.
Having been thwarted, they thought they wanted it more, but the reality of obtaining their desire was less pleasurable than their expectation. They didn’t like it as much as they anticipated.
This could be something to think about for those hard-to-get-into professions.
- I think I have come across a number of clients who fit these patterns, have you?
- What implications might this have for how we enable clients to develop realistic action plans?
- How often do you fantasise about achieving your goals?
- Taylor, S., Pham, L., Rivkin, I. & Armor, D. (1998) Harnessing the imagination: Mental simulation, self-regulation, and coping. American Psychologist, 53(4), 429-439. DOI: 10.1037/0003-066X.53.4.429
- Pham, L. & Taylor, S. (1999) From thought to action: Effects of process- versus outcome-based mental simulations on performance. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 25(2), 250-260. DOI: 10.1177/0146167299025002010
- Vasquez, N.A. & Buehler, R. (2007) Seeing future success: Does imagery perspective influence achievement motivation? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 33(10), 1392-1405. DOI: 10.1177/0146167207304541
- Oettingen, G. & Mayer, D. (2002) The motivating function of thinking about the future: Expectations versus fantasies. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83(5), 1198-1212. DOI: 10.1037//0022-35188.8.131.528
- Langens, T. & Schmalt, H. (2002) Emotional consequences of positive daydreaming: The moderating role of fear of failure. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 28(12), 1725-1735. DOI: 10.1177/014616702237653
- Litt, A., Khan, U. & Shiv, B. (2009) Lusting while loathing: Parallel counterdriving of wanting and liking. Psychological Science, 21(1), 118-125. DOI: 10.1177/0956797609355633
Related post: The benefits of pessimism