In my house, we talk a lot about 'model railroader syndrome.'

When my husband was in high school, he spent a lot of time building model railroads.  He'd lay out his track, put up the chicken wire  mountains, and lay out the buildings.  Then he'd start the hard work of plastering, laying artificial grass, putting in trees, and painting.

Halfway there, he'd just stop.  It was a lot more fun to play with the train and design new switches than to carry out all those persnickity details.  And besides, he could see it all so clearly in his head.  Why do the work?

'Model railroader syndrome' is the ability to see the completed project in your mind so clearly that you don't actually have to build it.  When our family talks about 'model railroader syndrome,' we're talking about someone who talks a good game, gets something started, but never really finishes. Not because they're lazy, but because they see it all so clearly in their mind.

Now there's a new study out that may tell us more about why this is such an easy trap to fall into.

Heather Kappes and Gabriele Oettingen recently published a study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology suggesting that the more clearly you visualize success, the less motivated you are to actually try to achieve it.  In the paper,  'Positive fantasies about idealized futures sap energy', they report experimental replication of old research (a Forbes piece on their article can be found here).

Past research has found that people who spontaneously dream about a rosy future tend to have lower achivement.  That research is interesting, especially n that it flies in the face of a lot of popular psychology ideas about 'visualizing success'. It's also depressing for those among us who are chronic daydreamers and hope that our fantasies will help us to build a positive future.

Unfortunately, correlational research like this makes it hard to untangle cause and effect and to understand processes.  You can imagine a lot of different explanations for it.  For example, are optimists just less successful?  Does past failure make you dwell on positive fantasies?  (Past failure is the best predictor of future failure.)  Are daydreamers less likely to do the hard work necessary to reach their goals or are they sloppier about carrying the work out?  Does seeing good things clearly in your mind satisfy your desire for them so you're less motivated (model railroader syndrome)?  We know that imagining eating makes you less hungry.  Maybe imagining success makes you less hungry for it.

Kappes and Oettingen performed four studies. They looked at low energy (measured by physiological and behavioral indicators) as indicative of low motivation.  After all, you can't get things done if you don't have enough energy to start.

They asked people to generate positive fantasies, negative fantasies, and neutral fantasies about the future.  People who had imagined positive futures had less energy than those who imagined that their future was in danger.  They also had less energy than those who imagined negative or neutral futures. 

The more pressing the need - in other words, the more important something was - the more positive fantasies sapped people's energy and undermined their motivation. 

These experimental results are important because they tell us that something about fantasizing itself - not about the people who are fantasizing - contributes to the decline in motivation.

In other words, not only doesn't positive visualizing work.  It keeps you from attaining your goals.

We know that fear can be debilitating.  But perhaps a little worry can stave off complacency and get you going enough to move from fantasy to reality.

(c) 2012.  Nancy Darling.  Al lrights reserved.

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