Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Why positive fantasies make your dreams less likely to come true

It's a trusted tool in the self-help armoury - visualising yourself having achieved your goals, be that weighing less, enjoying the view atop Everest, or walking down the aisle with the girl or boy of your dreams. Trouble is, reams of research shows that indulging in positive fantasies actually makes people's fantasised ambitions less likely to become reality. Why? A new study claims it's because positive fantasies are de-energising.

They "make energy seem unnecessary" say Heather Kappes and Gabriele Oettingen.  "By allowing people to consummate a desired future", the researchers explain, positive fantasies trigger the relaxation that would normally accompany actual achievement, rather than marshaling the energy needed to obtain it.

The researchers demonstrated this process across four studies. The first was the least convincing and read like a throwback to the 1960s. Women who were asked to fantasise positively about looking and feeling good in high-heeled shoes subsequently demonstrated lower energy, as revealed by their having lowing blood pressure, than did women asked to fantasise more critically about the pros and cons of wearing trendy, high-heeled shoes.

The research improved. In the second study, participants asked to fantasise positively about winning an essay contest subsequently reported feeling less energised than did participants asked to fantasise more negatively about their prospects.

Next, a positive fantasy about the coming week led participants to feel less energised, and when surveyed a week later, they'd achieved fewer of their week's goals, than had control participants who'd originally been asked to day-dream freely about the coming week.

Finally, Kappes and Oettingen highlighted the role of context, showing that positive fantasies about a pressing need are particularly de-energising. This elaborate study involved asking student participants to refrain from food and water for several hours, and then having some of them eat crackers (ostensibly as part of a taste test). For these super-thirsty participants it was a positive fantasy about a tall glass of icy water, not a fantasy about exam success, that led them to be de-energised (as indicated by a drop in blood pressure). For participants allowed to have a glass of water, by contrast, it was positive fantasies about exam success, not water, that led to them being de-energised.

Across all the studies, the researchers took pains to factor out other explanations - for example, they ruled out the effect of irritation, in case negative fantasies are energising by virtue of being irritating. They ruled out the possibility that some fantasies are easier to conjure than others. And they had a neutral fantasy condition, allowing them to confirm that positive fantasies really are de-energising, rather than it simply being that negative fantasies are energising.

So, is there any benefit to positive fantasies? From a survival perspective, if a goal, such as food or water, is unobtainable, there could be some advantage to enjoying a fantasy that switches you into a low-energy mode. Similarly, if a task fills you with dread and your short-term goal is relaxation, then indulging in positive fantasies about desired outcomes could be a way to reduce anxiety.

But ultimately, Happes and Oettingen believe that positive fantasies are likely to scupper your chances of obtaining your goals. "Instead of promoting achievement, positive fantasies will sap job-seekers of the energy to pound the pavement, and drain the lovelorn of the energy to approach the one they like," they write. "Fantasies that are less positive - that question whether an ideal future can be achieved, and that depict obstacles, problems and setbacks - should be more beneficial for mustering the energy needed to obtain success."

This study isn't the first to explode the myth of a traditional self-help tool. A 2009 paper found that repeating positive mantras about themselves led people low in self-esteem to feel worse.

ResearchBlogging.orgKappes, H., and Oettingen, G. (2011). Positive fantasies about idealized futures sap energy. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47 (4), 719-729 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2011.02.003

This post was written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.


pat bowne said...

Most of this research seems to uncritically accept that a lower heart rate = less energy to devote to a goal. Was that addressed in the original papers?

Dr. Janet Civitelli said...

I agree with Pat's concern. Lower blood pressure = less energy to achieve a goal? That seems like quite a stretch. In my own specialty (career development), I've noticed a very strong and positive correlation between a job seeker's ability to imagine themselves successful in a job search and persisting until a good outcome is achieved.

Unknown said...

Hi both

That's a valid concern, but please note that parts of the research also involved other measures, including self-report and actual goals achieved over a week. Here's the authors' rationale for measuring blood pressure:

"The most reliable response of the cardiovascular system for assessing energization is cardiac contractility; this response can be indexed by systolic blood pressure (SBP, the maximum pressure exerted by the blood against the vessel walls following a heartbeat; [Obrist, 1981] and [Wright, 1996]), as SBP is systematically influenced by contractility. SBP is largely governed by the sympathetic nervous system, which is increasingly activated as a task proves more exciting (Duffy, 1962). For example, performing in a job interview should heighten blood pressure as compared to conversing with an old friend. Even anticipating a demanding behavioral task results in increased blood pressure (Wright et al., 1989); thus, simply imagining oneself performing in a job interview affects the cardiovascular response. However, idealized positive fantasies – such as imagining easily impressing the interviewer – obscure the need to invest effort. Thus, positive fantasy about a desired future should lead to low energy as indicated by SBP."

Tim said...

This makes sense to me, thinking in terms of how general satisfaction comes from pursuing a goal, and not so much from achieving a goal. If you trick your brain into reacting to something being achieved, then there's no reason for it to keep pushing you forward. I'd wager that better results might come from instead imagining beyond the goal to the potential positive consequences.

Caveat B said...

a new spin on "fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom"?

Portia said...

This makes sense of something I've always felt intuitively.

Walter said...

I guess "the secret" is out.

Anonymous said...

Fantasies about winning the lottery and what life goals might be reached would then (more obviously) work to undermine the real goals.

Ben said...

"SBP is largely governed by the sympathetic nervous system, which is increasingly activated as a task proves more exciting"

Whilst it's true that excitement leads to an increased activation of the SNS and ergo increased systolic activity through cardiac acceleratory centre activation, it's invalid to presume that SNS activation or depression is caused solely by excitement; to do so is an 'affirming the consequent' logical fallacy.

For instance, stress also causes SNS activation and ergo increased measured blood pressure. A dip in stress brought about by positive fantasies would also result in the same decreased SBP, but wouldn't affect energisation. It seems the authors have presumed that SBP is indicative solely of energising factors like excitement, whereas it's indicative of irrelevant, or detrimental, factors like stress too.

As always, I pass no judgement on the findings or implied ideologies, just the method.

Anonymous said...

The study has a fatal flaw. It reported on revealed positive fantasies. It is reasonable that telling others of our positive fantasies can make them less likely to come true. If you're a man married to a woman try telling her you want a three way with her and her best friend. Good luck!

But what about positive fantasies we do not reveal? Same guy, same wife. Fantasy not revealed. Better luck!

Unknown said...

I agree that there is a link for some people between a lack of drive and visualisation having experienced it myself, BUT it has been useful. I think the real (next) question is WHY? For instance, I imagine myself having achieved X, then logically assess the consequences arising therefrom. It's often led me not to bother putting my energies into said 'X' either because the outcome is perceived to be not worth the energy input or baecasue I've already achieved the 'satisfaction' of getting there in myhead and therefore don't need to expend said energy. This would be an interesting piece of research to undertake.

A fan of the digest said...

Three points
1. There is a clear methodological flaw here that renders the study dubious
2. As described (I haven't read it, only the account here)The study plays into the notion that introspection and the inner world of imagination is somehow unrelated to the outer world which is 'real' - this reflects a certain epistemological position and
3. Surely any psychologist would combine this technique with goal setting (etc. etc.) rather than hope that it might work by some sort of sympathetic magic.
Bit of a non paper (as described; due to the flawed measurement of ? arousal or ? drive) and might well - as you rightly hint - have been rejected on the grounds of implicit and peculiar sexist assumptions.

One in Four said...

I also have doubts. Fantasy is a major factor in a paedophiles cycle of abuse as it increases arousal and therefore the likelihood of offending.

Lexie said...

The account claims that actual goals achieved over the work were used as a valid measure of energy levels affected by a fantasy. Firstly, were these goals set in advance or recalled in retrospect? Secondly, SNS activity measured durign daydreaming is unlikely to have a large enough impact over the whole week to cause a significant effect here, especially as the SNS is involved in bodily responses to environmental stimuli, not memory.

Also, in the experiment involving fasting, exam success and a glass of water are temporally unequal as objects for fantasy - they have different levels of relevence, unless the participants were right in the middle of some exams.

It is also claimed that 'other factors' were negated by a 'neutral fantasy' condition, when actually these participants were told to daydream freely. Therefore, these participants' fantasies were not even loosely related to each other by subject, and may well have been positive.

Unknown said...

Has anyone considered the fact that the 'low-blood pressure' and lack of achievment in future goals by the test subjects is a result of the expectations they have created by making these 'positive fantasies'? Instead of 'day dreaming' which implies the infinitude of (and therefore largely unpredictable) possiblities associated with life, the positive fantasies - which are a conscious imaginative effort - make a future where 'everything goes our way'.

I.e. We imagine events will turn out the way we want and therefore they must.

Therefore, the experiment misses the basic cause of the problem: an expectation that our expectations will be met. In essence, I do not need the energy to attain the goal because I assume I shall succeed, without taking into account the reality of actual work.

Anonymous said...

I do not wish to sound rough but it does not hold good when it comes to sexual fantasy. A positive sexual fantasy with your most desired actor/actress will make you masturbate rather than not to do it since the satisfaction has been achieved.

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