Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

Positive Fantasies Can Reduce Future Effort

The dangers of thinking positively about the future

It is important to visualize what is going to happen in the future.  When you are making plans to accomplish a goal, it is valuable to think through all of the things that can go wrong.  That simulation of the future can help you to figure out what you are going to do to overcome the obstacles that may keep you from achieving your aims.

Sometimes when we think about the future, we focus on our eventual success as well.  We may think about how good it will feel to succeed and what rewards we might get from completing a difficult task.  What role do these positive fantasies play?

Research by Gabriele Oettingen and her colleagues has shown that thinking about the benefits of success can actually make you less likely to achieve your goals.  They can reduce the amount of effort that you want to put into achieving your aims.

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A nice demonstration of this effect comes from a paper by Heather Kappes, Eesha Sharma and Gabriele Oettingen published in the January, 2013 issue of the Journal of Consumer Psychology.

In one study, participants read about a charity that was addressing a health crisis in Sierra Leone.  Many people in that country do not have access to pain medications that they need.  College students read an article about this crisis and then were told about a charity that was helping to bring pain medications to this country.  Some participants were asked to form a positive fantasy by thinking about the most positive thing that would happen if that crisis was resolved.  Other participants were asked to give a factual description of the crisis after it was resolved.

Afterward, participants were asked to donate money to the charity.  They were either asked to give a small donation ($1) or a large donation ($25, which is a lot of money for the typical undergraduate). 

Participants who were asked to give $1 were quite likely to donate regardless of the condition they were in, and those who were encouraged to think positively were actually somewhat more likely to give than those who were not.  Participants who were asked to give $25 were much less likely to give overall.  In this case, though, participants who thought positively almost never donated, while about 25% of those who gave a factual description were willing to donate. 

Another study found a similar effect with participants who were asked to volunteer their time to a cause rather than donating money.  In this study, participants who engaged in a positive fantasy were unlikely to give their time when they were asked for a lot of effort compared to those who were asked to think factually about a charity. 

A third study demonstrated that this effect was a result of thinking positively and not an effect of the factual description in the control group.  In this study, the control group did a boring task for a few minutes rather than giving a factual description.  Once again, people asked to volunteer a lot of time were unwilling to do it if they had created a positive fantasy, but if they did a boring task for a few minutes, they were more willing to volunteer a lot of time to help a charity.

These studies are a nice demonstration of the potential danger of positive fantasies.  If we spend a lot of time envisioning our success, we may begin to feel some of the satisfaction that comes with actually achieving a goal.  It is hard to motivate yourself to work hard to succeed when you are already feeling some of the rewards of that success.

Ultimately, it is better to focus on the difficulties that lie ahead when faced with a difficult task.  It may not be pleasant to think about the problems you will face, but it will make you more likely to get past those barriers.

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Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

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