Anticipation versus consummation

Sailing and a Key West Sunset by Asten

If you dream it will be plain sailing, you may never set off

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?


Related post: The benefits of pessimism

Photo credit: Asten


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  1. #1 by David Winter on 6 June 2010 - 11:31

    Thank you to Susanna for pointing out that I can’t spell consummation.

  2. #2 by Liz Wilkinson on 23 June 2010 - 11:17

    This fits with what I’ve read elsewhere about the downside of optimism (briefly summarised as optimists underestimate the effort needed to achieve a goal) Pessimists, if not overwhelmed, may apply themselves harder and get better results. Thus optimism may be a more mellow and comfortable frame of mind but achieve fewer tangible results. But pessimism seems far too easily to lead to overwhelmedness which can lead to little action at all. I’d welcome a blog post on working with the overwhelmed client.

    • #3 by David Winter on 29 June 2010 - 22:50

      Do you think the 3E model that I talk about in the post The benefits of pessimism would work with overwhelmed clients?

    • #4 by David Winter on 9 August 2010 - 10:52

      I’ve also just rediscovered a post I put up in the new year about Hope Theory, which seems to be quite appropriate to overwhelmed clients.

  3. #5 by David Winter on 15 June 2012 - 14:52

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