Max Mental Simulation Results

For training purposes, is it better to teach recruits and officers to visualize and mentally rehearse the desired outcome or the event? The answer may surprise you.


Let's do an experiment.

It'll be fun. You get to be a behavioral scientist.

First, take three groups of officers or recruits and ask them to think about a current problem at work or the academy that is stressing them out, but is potentially solvable.

Then tell the groups that the goal of the experiment is to help them deal with the problem effectively. Give all groups the following brief instruction on problem solving:

It is important to think about the problem, learn more about it, think about what you can do, take steps to deal with it. Resolving it could reduce your stress, make you feel pleased with how you dealt with it, and help you grow from the experience.

Then release one group, the control group, and ask them to report back a week later.

Separate the other two groups. Instruct one of these, the event simulation group:

We would like you to visualize how this problem arose. Visualize the beginning of the problem, going over in detail the first incident. Go over the incidents as they occurred step by step. Visualize the actions you took. Remember what you said, what you did. Visualize the environment, who was around you, where you were.

Instruct the third group, the outcome simulation group, to:

Picture this problem beginning to resolve, you are coming out of the stressful situation. Picture the relief you feel. Visualize the satisfaction you would feel at having dealt with the problem. Picture the confidence you feel in yourself, knowing that you have dealt successfully with the problem.

Then ask both the simulation groups to spend 5 minutes every day repeating their mental imagery and to also report back in a week.

Which group of officers or recruits do you predict will do the best in coping with their problems?

Pop psychology misses the markā€¦

The answer to the experiment is counter-intuitive to modern pop psychology and the preaching of its ubiquitous self-help gurus. According to that school of thought, YOU have the power to attract what you want in life. It doesn't take work. You simply have to learn (by buying the self-help gurus' books, CDs or seminars) how to visualize the outcome you want and, SHA-ZAAM! You turn into a giant magnet and all these desired outcomes will fly to you.

Here's an example from How to Attract What You Want Into Your Life. (Web link below.) This program claims it:

Will help you to understand the fundamentals of proper visualization so that you can accurately visual what you want and release your mind to soar to new heights of vivid and emotional visualizations so intense the Law of Attraction will rush to bring what you visualize into your life.

While I've no doubt there are beaucoup anecdotal reports in support of the program's claims, and others like it, I have been unable to find any scientific evidence for them.

Not all mental simulations are created equal.

The experiment above is a real one. It was done with a group of UCLA students by Professors Shelley Taylor and Inna Rivkin. (See web link below to their article.) Their research is also discussed in the best seller book, Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die.

Contrary to the marketed outcome visualization of pop psychology, it was the event simulation group - the students who visualized how events unfolded rather than the desired outcome - that did better on almost every dimension. The gap amongst the groups opened up right away. By the first night, the event-simulation people were already experiencing a positive mood boost compared with the other two groups.

When the three groups returned a week later, the event simulators' advantage had widened. They were more likely to have taken specific action to solve their problems. They were more likely to have sought advice and support from others. They were more likely to report that they had learned something and grown. (Made to Stick, pp. 210-212.)

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