Monday, June 29, 2009

Why “The Secret” is a big steaming pile of manure

Paper we’re looking at: From Thought to Action: Effects of Process- Versus Outcome-Based Mental Simulations on Performance

I’m going to ask you one of the worlds most annoying questions right now, and hope you forgive me… “Have you heard of ‘The Secret’”?

If you have, you know the basic concept it spouts – “Picture what you want, and your thoughts will vibrate out into the universe and manifest what you want!”

Of course it sounds like hooey. Of course it sounds like utter bunk. And, so, of course it’s sold about a bajillion dollars worth of books and spawned a whole industry of metaphysical mumbo-jumbo.

What’s most surprising to me, though, is that I’ve had otherwise intelligent people talk to me about this as if it’s something worthwhile. Sure, sometimes they preface it by saying “Now I don’t believe in any of the mystical magical stuff, but if we take that away, what it’s really doing is getting people to think about their goals – and that’s a good thing, isn’t it?”

That’s what this paper is about. It answers the question “Does spending more time thinking about your goals help you achieve them?”

Sure, I love this paper because it has some awesome research in it. Sure, I love it because it gives me the tools to make it MUCH more likely that I’ll achieve the goals I set for myself.

But mostly, I love this paper because I can reference it to all those “Secret” pushers, and give them a great big “IN YOUR FACE!”

Okay – Let’s look at the paper. Here’s the “Short Attention Span” version:

“The big message is simple – It’s not NEARLY enough to just visualize what you want. Instead, you have to visualize HOW you plan to get there. Just visualizing what you want is actually linked with LOWER performance than no visualization, where visualizing HOW to get what you want is linked with higher performance.

“Additionally, just visualizing what you want is linked with working less than planned on the goal, whereas process visualization is linked with working as planned or slightly more.”

The paper starts off by reviewing what we know about mental simulation (we can call it daydreaming, visualizing, what have you). There are 2 key elements of mental simulation for our discussion today:

1. It makes courses of action seem real or true – when people actively imagine future events, as opposed to reading or passively hearing about them, “they later express greater confidence that the events will actually occur.”

2. Imagining how events are going to happen lets us consider the structure or sequence of the event, the consequences of it, and basically puts us into strategic planning mode. For example, it gets us asking “If this deal goes through, what does that mean for the time I’ll be able to spend with my kids? What does it mean for my ability to keep up with the work?”

So not only does thinking about processes or events beforehand make us much more confident that those things will happen, it also lets us think about whether we WANT those things to happen.

This is all pretty cool already, and we haven’t even come close to the best parts!

One of the big take-aways from this paper is that we have to separate mental simulation with respect to goal setting into at least 2 categories – Outcome simulation & Process Simulation.

Outcome simulation is when we visualize the OUTCOME. It’s visualizing the mansion you want to live in, or standing on the first place spot on the podium, or being told “You’re being promoted!”

Process simulation is very different – Here, what we simulate is everything that needs to happen in order to reach the goal. So here we’d imagine training for the sport where we hope to end up on the podium; we’d imagine the different jobs or projects we’d need to complete well to be promoted – in short, we imagine HOW we’re going to reach the goal, not just that we’re going to reach it.

These 2 ways to use mental simulation are worlds apart – After all, it’s a lot more fun to imagine all the wonderful things that you want, than it is to imagine the work you’ll have to do to get them. But it’s also a lot more fun to nap than to exercise, and guess which one gets better results?

The study in this paper involved taking undergraduate students, splitting them into 4 groups, and giving them different ‘goal setting’ instructions. The first group was the control (obviously), the 2nd group was given only Outcome visualization instructions, the 3rd group was given only Process visualization instructions, and the 4th group was given both process & outcome instructions.

“Participants in the process simulation group were instructed to mentally simulate themselves studying for the exam, that is, to visualize when, where, and how they might study for the exam to achieve a high grade on the exam.”

“Participants in the outcome simulation group were instructed to mentally simulate themselves attaining a high score on the exam - that is, to visualize themselves having completed the exam and finding out that they achieved a very high score on the exam.”

So what happened in the study? Well, the results weren’t earth shattering, but they WERE statistically significant. Here’s what was found:

1. Students in the control group & the outcome group both studied about 5 hours less than they’d planned to study.

2. Students in the process group studied about an hour less than they’d planned to study, while students in the combined group studied more.

3. Students in the outcome group did the worst. They would have been better off not doing any sort of goal setting (they were about 5 percentage points below the control group).

4. Students in the “process only” group were 3% above control – Nothing earth shattering, but that puts them 8% above the “Outcome” group.

Quote from the paper:

“The beneficial effects of process simulation stemmed largely from its effects on problem solving activities, specifically planning and on the regulation of emotional states. In particular, process simulation participants reported having a detailed plan compared to participants in the other experimental conditions.

Focusing on the process needed to achieve a goal also enhanced other problem solving activities, specifically increasing the number of hours of study time participants devoted to preparation for their midterm. Process simulation also led to a decline in anxiety associated with the exam.”

One final note, that will likely be a post of its own in the not too distant future (it was a throwaway side note in this paper, too…)

“The outcome simulation perspective predicts that envisioning a desired outcome will help to bring about the desired goal. The self-help literature is replete with such advice. However, the results suggest that envisioning the desired outcome did not prompt effective actions to bring about the desired goal. In fact, outcome simulation can have negative effects on goal-directed behavior. [Researchers] reported similar results in a series of studies on the effects of positive fantasies.”

It goes on to explain that researchers found that when people spend a lot of time thinking about the positive outcome, they’re actually LESS likely to succeed than a control group.

They suggested that this might be because people believe the success is more likely to happen (remember that from way back at the start?), and because they simulate the experience of having that success – All of which prevents them from appreciating or thinking about the efforts that will be required to actually ACHIEVE that success.

That’s a BIG kick in the teeth to the hippy dippy “If you can see it, you can be it” and “just put it on your vision board” BS that’s so often sold to us.

The paper finishes off with a WONDERFUL quote, which I’ll finish off this post with as well:

“Common wisdom … has suggested that an “I can do it” strategy of envisioning a desired outcome can have a self-fulfilling effect on goal attainment. However, the current research does not support this belief. The results of the present research suggest that a more successful strategy for goal attainment may be to answer the mundane question “How can I do it?””

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