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Author: Dr Simon Moss


After individuals attempt to visualize some event--such as defeating an opponent or voting at an election--this image or aspiration is, at least under some circumstances, less likely to be fulfilled. That is, visualization is effective only when specific criteria are satisfied.


When is the practice suitable?

Visualization can sometimes increase the likelihood that individuals will realize some goal, such as execute an excellent golf stroke or exercise more frequently. However, individuals who feel they cannot form vivid mental images--who feel the images they form are cloudy and hazy--should not attempt to visualize the outcomes they desire. Although unconscious, individuals tend to assume that events that cannot be imagined readily are unrealistic. If they cannot form a vivid image of some event, therefore, their motivation subsides and their performance wanes (Petrova & Cialdini, 2005).

Second, individuals who have seldom, if ever, observed the outcome they desire should not form mental images. An employee who would like to confront a manager, but has seldom observed anyone else act assertively before, is unlikely to form a vivid image. Because individuals cannot form vivid images of acts they have only infrequently, if at all, observed in the past, visualization is ineffective in these contexts (Petrova & Cialdini, 2005).

Overt movements

In some contexts, visualization seems to be more effective when coupled with overt movements as well. If individuals plan to eat more vegetables in the future, they should not only imagine themselves consume this food but should also pretend to munch at the same time. If individuals plan to watch the ball more closely when they play tennis, they should visualize this behavior at the same time as they move their eyes.

The benefits of these overt movements was substantiated by Sherman, Gangi, and White (2010). In their study, participants watched a video, intended to encourage individuals to floss their teeth regularly. Some of the participants were asked to imagine themselves flossing their teeth. Other participants were asked to imagine themselves flossing their teeth, while they, briefly, held a packet of dental floss in their hands. Next, participants were asked to specify the number of times they plan to use dental floss over the next week.

If participants visualized themselves flossing, without any overt movement, their intentions were not always fulfilled. That is, the relationship between intentions and subsequent flossing behavior was limited. If participants visualized themselves flossing, while also engaging in overt movements, intentions were strongly related to subsequent behavior (Sherman, Gangi, & White, 2010).

A second study replicated these findings, but with a different behavior: exercise. In particular, if individuals imagined themselves exercising, while also walking at the same time, their intentions were more likely to translate to behavior (Sherman, Gangi, & White, 2010).

According to Sherman, Gangi, and White (2010) these movements might, merely, increase the accessibility of these intentions. That is, individuals are more likely to be aware of their intentions to consume healthy flood, floss their teeth, engage in exercise, or complete some other activity in the relevant context.


If individuals elaborate these images, reflecting upon the precise time and location for example, the benefits of visualization are more pronounced. Specifically, these images can be retrieved and processed more fluently. Images that are processed more fluently tend to be perceived as more appropriate (see fluency and hedonic marking). Individuals thus feel more inclined to enact the behaviors they imagined.

The benefits of elaboration were corroborated by Husnu and Crisp (2010). In one of their studies, participants were 60 British students, none of whom were Muslim. Some of these participants were asked to imagine a conversation with a Muslim stranger. They were asked to imagine discovering some interesting facts about this person. In addition, some of these participants were also encouraged to elaborate these images, by envisioning the precise time and place they might interact with this person. Furthermore, the extent to which they intend to interact with British Muslims in the future was assessed. Finally, one day later, participants were also asked to attempt to retrieve the image they had formulated. The extent to which this image was easy to recall was also assessed.

If the images were elaborated, participants were more likely to intend interacting with British Muslims in the future. This association was partly mediated by the extent to which the image could be retrieved readily (Husnu & Crisp, 2010).

Other refinements to the practice of visualization

After individuals identify an outcome they desire, such as eat healthily, work diligently, or talk confidently, they should ideally engage in similar behaviors to a limited extent, such as eat one apply or work diligently for one hour. This exercise ensures they can later visualize the desired behavior well.

Second, before they form this image, they should relax briefly--perhaps reflecting upon a distant holiday destination they have visited or focusing on their breath.

Third, they should then imagine the desired act, but from the perspective of an observer, watching themselves engage in this behavior.

Third person versus first person perspective

People can imagine their lives, including hypothetical possibilities in the future as well as past events, from either their own perspective or the from the perspective of someone else, called the first person and third person respectively. To illustrate, after imagining a failure in the past, they could be asked the extent to which they:

When people adopt the third-person perspective, they do not feel as embedded within the episode. Consequently, their attitudes and emotions depend more on their preconceptions instead of the event itself. To illustrate, if their self-esteem is high, they may assume they responded appropriately. If their self-esteem is low, they may assume they responded inappropriately.

This possibility was validated by Libby, Valenti, Pfent, and Eibach (2011). In their first study, participants initially completed a measure of self-esteem: the Rosenberg self-esteem scale. They also completed the Attitudes Towards Self Scale (Carver & Ganellen, 1983), which assesses the inclination of individuals to overgeneralize (e.g., "When even one thing goes wrong I begin to feel bad and wonder if I can do well at anything at all"), criticize themselves (e.g., "I am not satisfied with anything less than what I expected of myself"), or strive to reach lofty and often unfeasible standards (e.g., "I am a perfectionist in my goals").

Then, participants were instructed to recall a failure in a social, academic, or competitive situation within the last five years and then asked the extent to which they imagined the event from the first person or third person perspective. Finally, they completed a series of questions that assess mood as well as the degree to which participants perceive themselves as a failure in general after contemplating this event.

If participants reported a low self-esteem, they were more likely to feel shame and perceive themselves as a failure in general after recalling a failure from the perspective of someone else instead of themselves. Presumably, when they adopted this third person perspective, their unfavorable preconceptions of themselves biased their appraisal of this event. In contrast, if participants reported a high self-esteem, they were less likely to feel shame and perceive themselves as a failure in general after recalling a failure from the perspective of someone else. Presumably, when they adopted this third person perspective, their favorable preconceptions of themselves biased their appraisal of this event.

The next set of studies refined the procedure. For example, in the second study, participants were instructed to adopt either a first person or third person perspective. To assess the impact of this instruction, participants were asked to list personal successes and personal failures, to assess the accessibility of perceptions about themselves. In the third study, participants all imagined the same failure. An implicit measure was used to assess accessibility of self-perceptions. The final two studies focused on the experience of shame instead of self-perceptions. Regardless, in all these studies, the same pattern of results was observed.

Theoretical explanations

Individuals often ascribe their own behavior, such as laziness, to factors that are not related to their own character, such as illness. In contrast, they often ascribe the same behavior of another person to the character of this individual. If they imagine themselves performing an act from the perspective of another person, they virtually conceptualize themselves as someone else. They will ascribe the visualized behavior, such as exercising in the morning, to their character& they will, unconsciously, perceive themselves as more disciplined and fit, for example. Because of this perception, they are more inclined to engage in the behavior they visualized (Libby, Shaeffer, Eibach, & Slemmer, 2007).

Furthermore, visualization offers similar benefits as does actual practice, but to a lesser extent. For example, mental imagery can elicit the same emotional and motivational responses, but often to a lesser extent, as actual events (e.g., Dadds, Bovbjerg, Redd, & Cutmore, 1997). Indeed, the neurological mechanisms that underpin the responses to imagined and actual events overlap considerably (Kosslyn, Ganis, & Thompson, 2001).


Carver, C. S., & Ganellen, R. J. (1983). Depression and components of self-punitiveness: High standards, self-criticism, and overgeneralization. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 92, 330-337. doi:10.1037/0021-843X.92.3.330

Dadds, M. R., Bovbjerg, D. H., Redd, W. H., & Cutmore, T. R. (1997). Imagery in human classical conditioning. Psychological Bulletin, 122, 89-103.

Husnu, S., & Crisp, R. J. (2010). Elaboration enhances the imagined contact effect. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 49, 943-950.

Kosslyn, S. M., Ganis, G., & Thompson, W. L. (2001). Neural foundations of imagery. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 2, 635-642.

Libby, L. K., Shaeffer, E. M., Eibach, R. P., & Slemmer, J. A. (2007). Picture yourself at the polls: Visual perspective in mental imagery affects self-perception and behaviour. Psychological Science, 18, 199-203.

Libby, L. K., Valenti, G., Pfent, A., & Eibach, R. P. (2011). Seeing failure in your life: Imagery perspective determines whether self-esteem shapes reactions to recalled and imagined failure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101, 1157-1173. doi:10.1037/a0026105

Petrova, P. K., & Cialdini, R. B. (2005). Fluency of consumption imagery and the backfire effects of imagery appeals. Journal of Consumer Research, 32, 442-452.

Sherman, D. K., Gangi, C., & White, M. L. (2010). Embodied cognition and health persuasion: Facilitating intention-behavior consistency via motor manipulations. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46, 461-464.

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Last Update: 6/6/2016