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A number of self help authors teach some kind of variation of visualization techniques to help with focus and/or goal achievement. David Allen's "Getting Things Done" dedicates part of the book to using visualization to achieve goals. Tony Robbins also dedicates part of "Awaken the Giant Within" to visualization.

I have read about claims and experiments with athletes where one group spent more time doing physical practice while another group used visualization and had better results. However, I can never seem to find the referenced study. Does anyone know of well tested evidence regarding the effectiveness of visualization?

Update - Some additional background on visualization in self help books:
My hesitation with self help books is that they end up referring to an older self help book which will do likewise. A good example is Getting Things Done. The visualization section refers to a book from 1960 by Dr. Maxwell Maltz called: Psycho-cybernetics. The book consists mostly of the author's experience as a plastic surgeon teaching his patients how to use visualization to improve their self image. The book mentions a number of cases however does not provide a bibliography of references to any of these works. That and the fact the preface begins with: "The Secret of Using This Book to Change Your Life." made me a little weary.

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    I thought it depended on the activity? Again, my memory is imperfect, but wasn't there an actually study done with shooting hoops. Three groups (1. Only practiced freethrows, 2. Practiced freethrows and visualized, 3. Only visualized) and there were measurable results? Anyone have access to that one? – JasonR Sep 22 '11 at 21:01
  • Here is some interesting advice from someone who read 340 self help books: commonsenseatheism.com/?p=12651 – johanvdw Sep 23 '11 at 12:18
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I don't have the direct reference handy, but a study is mentioned in the book "59 seconds," which is basically a (the only?) science-based self help book. Incidentally, Jeff Atwood (or was it Joel Spolsky), co-founder of Stack Exchange, named it as the only self-help book worth reading.

The result is that "visualizing" results is extremely counter productive. Students who were asked to visualize themselves acing their exams were more likely to fail them that those who didn't. However those who visualized themselves studying did significantly better!

When you think about it, this result is not surprising. When you convince yourself you're going to succeed, you simply discard the efforts necessary to do so.


Edit: the study referenced in 59 seconds is Pham, L. B., & Taylor S. E. (1999). From thought to action: Effects of process- versus outcome-based mental simulations on performance. "Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 25, 250—260"


References (for review)

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 behavior. "Psychological Science", 18, 199-203.

Oettingen, G., Pak, H., & Schnetter, K. (2001). Self-regulation of goal setting: Turning free fantasies about the future into binding goals. "Journal of Personality and Social Psychology", 80, 736-753.

  • This is not an answer unfortunately--the OP is asking for the study, but you are basically repeating the claim he's already skeptical of. However, given the author is a notable sketpic, I am quite sure that the claim is referenced. What is the study? – Sklivvz Sep 22 '11 at 10:43
  • I don't have the book with me. I know you can find the reference there. Also, you're wrong, the OP asks "Does anyone know of well tested evidence." I gave an indirect pointer to exactly that. – niXar Sep 22 '11 at 11:32
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    I found a few sources at the back of 59 Seconds that may be helpful: 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 behavior. "Psychological Science", 18, 199-203. Oettingen, G., Pak, H., & Schnetter, K. (2001). Self-regulation of goal setting: Turning free fantasies about the future into binding goals. "Journal of Personality and Social Psychology", 80, 736-753. – luis.roca Sep 22 '11 at 13:17
  • There has been another recent study that further debunks positive visualization while lending support for critical visualization: Heather Barry Kappesa, Gabriele Oettingena (2011). Positive fantasies about idealized futures sap energy "Journal of Experimental Social Psychology" Volume 47, Issue 4, July 2011, Pages 719-729 – luis.roca Jan 3 '12 at 17:42
  • I'd like to point out that in 59 Seconds, while visualizing results proved to be ineffective, visualizing the process was not. You imply this in your answer mentioning the students, but you don't directly say it, and I don't feel that it answers the question of what happened with the atheletes. – Alexander Troup Apr 5 '14 at 19:57

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