Motivation and emotion/Book/2014/Imagery and motivation

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Imagery and motivation:
How can imagery be used to increase motivation
and improve performance?

Overview[edit | edit source]

“Champions aren't made in the gyms. Champions are made from something they have deep inside them -- a desire, a dream, a vision.”

Muhammad Ali - World Heavyweight Champion boxer. (Afremow, 2013)

Figure 1. Goals motivate people to push to their limits.

27 year-old Chris meticulously re-reads his final notes, anxiously hoping he has studied hard enough to pass the final medicine exam and graduate with honors. 16 year-old Rachel doubles-over after finishing another run, exhausted but hoping that this year she will improve enough to qualify for the national team.

It is well known that people’s thoughts about future events can strongly influence their current feelings, emotions, motivations and behaviors (Ross & Buehler, 2001). As highlighted in the examples, both Chris and Rachel are motivated to behave in the way they do, as they believe that these actions will bring about their desired outcome. However, what if Chris and Rachel were to simply imagine themselves successfully completing their respective goals, could this alone increase their achievement motivation, effort and final performance? Research suggests that it may (Vasquez & Buehler, 2007; Fruend & Hennecke, 2011; Knauper, McCollam, Rosen-Borown, Lacaille, Kelso & Roseman, 2011).

People often use goals as a means of motivating and guiding behavior towards a desired outcome (Elliot, Shell, Bouas Henry & Maier, 2005). In addition to this, people also tend to generate a mental image of what their ideal future will look like once their goals are achieved (Atance & O’Neill, 2001). Whilst these mental images and goals are closely related, the processes used to generate each are functionally distinct and can differ considerably between individuals (Austin & Vancouver, 1996).

Consider this; Rachel and Chris are each asked to deliver a presentation to a panel of experts. Both share the same goal of delivering a good presentation, however the images they create of themselves doing so differ considerably. Chris pictures himself looking out into the stern eyes of the panel, sensing the butterflies churning in his stomach and hoping to simply get through his presentation without stumbling over his words. On the other hand, Rachel enjoys public speaking and imagines herself confidently presenting to the panel, receiving nods of approval throughout and being congratulated at the conclusion. According to findings from social cognition research, it is highly likely that Rachel will outperform Chris in this scenario, as positive images of one's self in the future are shown to not only make events seem more likely, but also improve final performance (Sherman, Skov, Hervitz & Stock, 1981).

Given that goals are central to every person’s life, finding strategies to improve both the likelihood of success and motivation to achieve is of critical importance. This chapter looks at how imagery can facilitate successful goal-directed behaviors, provides insight into the types of imagery that are found to be most effective, and gives practical advice on how these techniques can be incorporated to improve everyday motivational lives.

Pre Quiz[edit | edit source]

Do you use imagery in your everyday life? Find out by answering these four quick questions:

1 I often picture myself successfully completing a goal or task, even before I have physically done so.


2 I often find myself daydreaming about things that have happened earlier that day, or things that I am planning on doing later in the week.


3 When preparing to give a speech, I often do practice sessions beforehand where I imagine myself standing in front of the people I will have to present to.


4 When arriving back at work after a holiday, I often find myself mentally picturing the various places that I visited during the day, as a way of enjoying them all over again.


If you answered mostly 'true' to the above questions, then you already use some sort of imagery in your everyday life. Read on to find out how you can utilize this powerful mental tool to further boost your performance and motivation!

Defining imagery[edit | edit source]

Figure 2. How often do you think about your future?

Imagery can be thought of as an aspect of the imagination; a way for individuals to envision possibilities about the future and develop plans of action to bring these about (Taylor, et al., 1998). Just as we can imagine how things are likely to be if we continue following our current pattern of behavior (e.g., if I continue to put off studying I will most likely fail my exam) we can also imagine how our future will be if we change our behavior patterns (e.g., if I study 6 hours a day for the next week I will pass my exam and successfully graduate from university).

Imagery may involve either the cognitive replay of events that have already happened, or the mental construction of real or hypothetical future scenarios (Taylor & Pham, 1999). Going back to the previous example of Chris and Rachel, let's look at how Chris uses imagery to generate goals for future presentations:

Chris was really disappointed with how his presentation went. He keeps replaying the talk over and over in his mind, knowing that his nerves caused him to speak too fast throughout. Despite having researched the topic well and including good content, he can mentally hear himself rushing over all his important points and knows that his ideas were not conveyed strongly enough. He decides that next time he is asked to give a presentation he will consciously take slow, deep breaths as he walks up to the podium, and focus his gaze just above the heads of the panel so he can pretend he is simply presenting to a few close friends. He closes his eyes and pictures himself standing in front of the panel again, however this time by concentrating on his breathing and avoiding the stern gaze of his superiors, he notices that the anxiety and butterflies he felt before have already noticeably diminished.

Figure 3. Mastering public speaking is a goal of many individuals.

Previously, Chris had not exerted any control over his imagination, letting his fear of public speaking run wild and create a mental image of anxiety at just the thought of presenting. However, now Chris is able to use imagery of past events (the speech he already gave) to analyze his previous performance and create behavioral goals for his next presentation (a future event).

Imagery increases one’s motivation to achieve by providing information about how an event will occur, enabling necessary problem-solving strategies and creating strong emotional links, as mentally construed images are shown to make hypothetical events seem more real and likely to occur (Taylor, et al., 1998). In addition to imagery of past and future events, research has also shown that there are two different types of perspectives people can adopt when imagining events; first-person and third-person perspective (Libby & Eibach, 2002).

First-person perspective[edit | edit source]

Individuals see the event from the same visual perspective as if it were actually occurring to them. They look out at their future through their own eyes, and feel the associated sensations that may occur within their own body. For example, a person envisioning a future speech they were to give would see the audiences’ faces looking up in anticipation, as well as feeling the butterflies in their stomach as they prepared to begin.

Third-person perspective[edit | edit source]

Individuals see the event from an observer’s viewpoint, that is, they see both themselves as well as their surroundings in their mental picture. Using the example from above, this person would see himself or herself standing in front of the audience speaking, as if they were watching a video recording of the event.

History and theory[edit | edit source]

An individual’s self-concept is a key motivational factor, as it underlies all attitudes, emotions, beliefs and behaviors (Ross, 1992). Self-concept involves both an individual's mental representation of the person they currently are, as well as encompassing their thoughts or aspirations about who they would like to become in the context of their environment (Beck, 2000). In this way, an individual's mental representation of their future self can become an important motivational tool (Beck, 2000). Drawing on concepts from goal setting theory , theory of planned behavior and possible selves theory, researchers have sought to explore and explain the links between people’s notions of their future self and the influence this has on their current motivational state.

Possible selves theory[edit | edit source]

Branching from self discrepancy theory, possible selves refers to the desired combination of self-schemas one wishes to possess in order to form a coherent and consistent self-concept (Deckers, 2004). These possible selves can be a combination of both positive images a person is striving for, or negative images they wish to avoid (Ruvolo & Markus, 1992). It is believed that possible selves serve to motivate action by helping a person to articulate their goals clearly and focus on developing the specific behaviors that will allow them to fulfill these goals (Vasquez & Buehler, 2007).

A positive possible self: I want to get fit and healthy this summer so I can run a marathon.
A negative possible self: I don't want to be a person who gets puffed just walking to the shops.

Figure 4. Runners competing in a marathon.

Research has shown that it is both easier to picture a positive self than a negative self (vanDellan & Hoyle, 2008) and that people are more likely to believe they will become their positive selves rather than their negative selves (Hart, Fegley & Brengelman, 1993). In line with these findings, envisioning a successful future self has been found to be more motivating and lead to greater success than imagining a failing future self (Taylor & Pham, 1999). Sherman, Skov, Hervitz and Stock (1981) found that participants who envisioned themselves being successful in an anagram task not only outperformed those who envisioned failure in the final task, but also predicted that they would perform better beforehand. Similarly, Oyserman et al. (2002) showed that students who were asked to imagine themselves being successful at school and outline the behaviors that would create this success, significantly increased their overall grades as well as lower rates of depression, absences and in-school misbehavior, when compared to the control group. These findings indicate the strong link between images of oneself and subsequent behavior patterns, and how possible selves serve as a key motivational tool for behavioral change.

Goal setting theory[edit | edit source]

As motivation is a key driving force toward goal achievement (Latham, 2005), goal setting is thought to be a powerful motivational tool for directing behavioural action. It is also thought that the types of goals an individual sets directly influences the extent of performance gains (Locke & Latham, 2006). Goal setting theory (Locke & Latham, 1990) proposes that goals which are both specific and difficult lead to greater performance gains, and that individuals who set goals with these attributes will be able to outperform others who possess the same ability and knowledge.

  • Specificity: refers to how clearly the goal informs the person of the behaviors necessary to achieve the desired outcome. In this way, increased specificity allows for greater regulation of performance. Imagery is thought to enhance the specificity of goals by priming the necessary actions, leading to more vivid and cognitively accessible mental representations of relevant situational cues and goal-directed behaviors (Murphy, Nordin & Cumming, 2008). A study by Taylor et al. (1998), showed that 41% of students who envisioned the steps needed to complete a school project finished on time, compared with only 14% of the control group who had used no type of imagery. Likewise, Knauper et al. (2011) found that individuals who formed implementation intentions and mentally rehearsed their key elements were more successful at achieving their health goals, than those who formed only implementation intentions or imagined completing the goal.
  • Difficulty: refers to how much effort the person perceives will be needed to achieve the desired goal (Locke & Latham, 1990). Locke and Latham (1990) showed that as difficulty increased, so too did performance, as long as the individual perceived that s/he had the ability, commitment and knowledge to achieve it. As imagery of future events is shown to make them seem more likely (Anderson, 1983), it is thought that imagery enhances one's perception of his/her ability to achieve by providing a vision of the desired goal-state and prompting relevant problem-solving activities to overcome difficulties that arise (Taylor et al., 1998). However, this does not mean that every wish an individual has about future events will have motivational or performance benefits, as goals must be perceived as realistically achievable (Locke & Latham, 1990). Oettingen and Thorpe (2006) showed that mentally created images of events that had little evidence to support the likelihood of their occurrence, actually undermined motivation by tempting the person to fantasize about the future, thereby decreasing motivation to act and prepare for likely obstacles.

Theory of planned behavior[edit | edit source]

Theory of planned behavior (TPB) emphasizes the role of personal attitudes, social pressures and perceived sense of control in directing human behavior (Azjen, 1991). It is believed that these three components combine to form an individual's intentions, which can be defined as ones explicit plans or motivations to perform a certain behavior (Azjen, 1991). As an individual's attitudes are based on their beliefs about the outcome their behaviors will have, researchers have questioned whether envisioning different outcomes could therefore bring about a change in attitude, and subsequently alter ones motivation to behave in a certain way.

According to the TPB, a person who desires to stop drinking will be more motivated to do so if they believe that it will have a positive outcome (their attitude), senses that their social group does not approve of their drinking patterns (social pressures) and believes that they have the willpower to abstain from alcohol (perception of control).

Figure 5. Diagram of the Theory of Planned Behaviour, Azjen (1985)

In a study by Armitage and Reidy (2008), it was found that imagery focused on the process of going to donate blood increased participants intentions to donate. They reported feeling a greater sense of control over the situation as well as an increased social obligation, suggesting a link between TPB variables, imagery and intentions (Armitage & Reidy, 2008). Other studies have also found imagery to be successful in improving individuals attitudes towards out-groups and reducing stereotyping (Turner, Crisp & Lambert, 2007). Turner, et al. (2007) found that heterosexual males who imagined talking with homosexual men subsequently displayed significantly more positive attitudes towards homosexual males than control participants. These findings suggest that imagery may play a significant role in changing individuals attitudes, perceived sense of control and social norms, thereby impacting on individuals intentions and subsequent behaviors. However, further research is needed to determine the exact type of imagery (process or outcome focused) that is most effective in bringing about these changes, and whether this is dependent on both the individual and the situation.

Key research findings[edit | edit source]

As mentioned previously, there are a number of different ways imagery may be mentally construed by individuals. Either a first-person or third-person perspective can be used and focus may be placed on either the process or outcome of goal achievement. The following section looks at recent findings, to determine if these differences influence the effectiveness of imagery on motivation and performance.

Perspective[edit | edit source]

Figure 6. Third-person perspective or 'birds-eye view'.

Numerous studies have shown that differences in visual perspective can significantly alter autobiographical memory, affecting emotions, self-judgment and behavior (Libby, Eibach & Gilovich, 2005). Given that memory and imagination rely on many of the same cognitive processes (Levine et al., 1998), it has been suggested that differences in visual perspective may also influence the effects of imagery.

Libby et al. (2005), found that mental images constructed using third-person perspective increased both their personal meaning and significance. As goals that are perceived as more important tend to elicit higher levels of motivation (Fujita, Trope, Liberman & Levin-Sagi, 2006), it is thought that imagery created using third person perspective could have a greater impact on motivation than those construed using first-person perspective. Vasquez and Beuhler (2007) showed that individuals who visualized success in an upcoming academic task from a third person perspective, reported significantly higher levels of motivation than those who imagined success from a first person perspective (t(109) = 2.23, p < .05). Further analysis indicated that these increases in motivation were due to participants viewing the upcoming task as more important, supporting Libby et al.’s (2005) findings. Despite these positive results, this study did not assess final achievement outcomes for participants, so whilst third-person imagery may enhance motivation, there is no evidence that it leads to improved performance.

Figure 7. First-person perspective, 'in the moment'.

More recently, Buehler, Griffin, Kent and Deslauriers (2012) found that goals construed using third-person perspective significantly decreased the likelihood of participants succumbing to the planning fallacy (Kahnemann & Tversky, 1979), a form of optimistic bias that leads people to underestimate the time it will take to complete a task. It was found that across four studies, participants using third person perspective predicted a longer and more realistic completion time (M = 12.79, SD = 1.85) when compared to the group using first-person perspective (M = 10.79, SD = 2.65, t(41) = 2.53, p < .05) (Buehler et al., 2012). Further analysis revealed that the mechanisms through which third-person imagery reduced this optimistic prediction bias, was by increasing participants focus on potential obstacles and creating a more neutral viewpoint when predicting steps to completion (Buehler et al., 2012).

Take home message:Whilst recent research suggests that perspective plays a significant role in determining the cognitive and motivational effects of imagery, further research is needed to determine the exact situations and motivation types that it is most beneficial for and whether these motivational differences translate to increases in performance.

Focus[edit | edit source]

Imagery that is process-focused involves the mental simulation of how a goal will be achieved, for example someone desiring to lose weight would imagine going to exercise classes and eating a higher proportion of fruits and vegetables. In contrast, outcome-focused imagery involves envisioning the desired outcome and the person trying to lose weight would think about how they would look once they had reached their goal weight. Whilst both types of imagery are shown to motivate behaviour change, researchers have questioned whether differences in imagery focus may effect the extent of goal-directed behavior change (Taylor et al., 1998, Armitage & Reidy, 2008).

Figure 8. Knauper et al. (2011) found fruit consumption increased significantly with the use of process-focused imagery.

A recent study looked to determine the effects of process and outcome imagery on increasing fruit consumption in first year university students (Knauper et al., 2011). Over the seven-day period in which the experiment was carried out, significantly higher fruit consumption was seen amongst the processed-focused imagery group, when compared to the outcome-focused group (Knauper et al., 2011). The authors found that the process-focused condition reported higher mental imagery of critical cues and cue-response links, suggesting that process-focused imagery increases the cognitive accessibility of critical-cues and facilitates greater behavioral change through the prompting of goal-related action (Knauper et al., 2011).

In line with Knauper et al.’s (2011) findings, process-focused imagery has also been shown to significantly increase the success of adherence to weight-loss programs, when compared to outcome-focused imagery (Fruend, Hennecke, 2011). In a 6-week longitudinal study of 126 overweight women, imagery focused on dietary changes (process) was significantly positively related to weight loss (β=0.50, p = 0.01) whilst imagery focused on how participants would feel at their goal weight (outcome) was significantly negatively correlated with weight loss (β=-0.35, p=0.06). Additionally, participants using process-focused imagery were less likely to deviate from their diet and exhibited increased self-regulation (Freund and Hennecke, 2011).

Take home message: These findings suggest that process-focused imagery may be particularly beneficial in increasing self-regulation of goal-related behaviors, as well as enhancing the cognitive accessibility of critical cues, leading to greater planning and facilitation of problem solving when faced with difficulty.

Applications of imagery[edit | edit source]

How you can use imagery to enhance your motivational life[edit | edit source]

If you are interested in using imagery to improve your motivational life, here are a few tips about how to do so effectively:

  1. Incorporate as many senses as possible into your imagery
    • Using all of the senses (sight, touch, hearing, smell and taste) that are relevant to the situation, will make you feel like you are really experiencing the performance you are imagining.
    • For example: when picturing yourself presenting an important speech, visualize the crowd, hear the rustling of notes and coughing as you begin, feel the butterflies in your stomach and your hands placed confidently by your sides.
  2. Make sure imagery has a positive focus
    • Focus on yourself completing a goal successfully, rather than avoiding an undesirable goal
    • If you are having difficulty creating positive imagery, try restructuring the mental picture or creating a positive alternate image that seems realistic to you
    • For example, if you recently had a bad experience when public speaking, rather than thinking about not stumbling over your words, think instead about your voice sounding confident and clear to your audience next time you present
  3. Ensure imagery is realistic and includes vivid detail
    • Try to be as realistic as possible about how your goals will eventuate. Picturing yourself receiving a standing ovation from a crowd of thousands, when you are simply giving a speech to a small group of colleagues, may undermine motivation and the need to prepare accordingly
    • Include as much detail as possible in your imagery. Imagine everything from the room you will be in, to how you will feel and all the necessary steps you will need to take to achieve your goal. This will help to make images seem more realistic and create a clearer path to achievement
  4. Focus on the process as well as the outcome
    • Imaging the entire process of goal achievement from start to end primes problem solving strategies, increases intentions to act as well as enhancing the perception of control over the situation
    • Particularly try to identify obstacles that may arise and how you will overcome these. Don't just imagine yourself giving a successful presentation. Think about the practice and research you will need to do beforehand, how you will feel as you walk up to the stage and the steps you will need to take to overcome nerves or last minute problems that may arise
  5. Be relaxed
    • It is best to practice imagery when you are calm and relaxed, as this will make it easier to focus on generating specific mental images
    • There are no set 'places' where imagery should be performed and it can be done in a number of settings (on a run, whilst cooking, before bed, etc.). The main focus is ensuring you are in a positive and clear frame of mind.
  6. Practice regularly
    • Like any skill, practice improves your ability and it may take awhile to fully master
    • Do not be discouraged if you initially find it hard to create realistic and vivid images, if you persist you will find that this becomes easier and requires little effort
  7. Focus on quality rather than quantity
    • As imagery is a mental skill, it requires high levels of concentration and control, which can be fatiguing when first getting started
    • When beginning to use imagery, focus on creating high-quality images for short periods of time, and then gradually increase the time period as your ability improves.
  8. Don’t stress about perspective
    • Whilst there is some evidence to show that third-person imagery may increase motivation in certain situations, further research is needed to determine whether these motivational differences translate to improvements in performance.
    • Use the type of imagery perspective that comes most naturally to you, with a focus on creating a realistic and attainable mental picture of your future.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

At the beginning of this chapter, it was asked whether simply imagining the successful completion of a goal-event could increase ones motivation to achieve it, their level of effort and final performance. Given the findings from recent research, there is significant evidence to show that imagery can indeed be used as a powerful motivational tool and that it is effective across a wide range of settings (Oyersman et al., 2002; Knauper et al., 2011; Armitage & Reidy, 2008). From increasing adherence to health goal intentions (Knauper et al., 2011) and improving the success of weight loss programs (Freund & Hennecke, 2011), to achieving greater academic performances and increasing ones motivation to succeed in upcoming tasks (Vasquez & Beuhler, 2007), imagery is a simple and effective tool that can be used by anyone wishing to enhance their motivational lives.

See also[edit | edit source]

Wikipedia-logo.png Search for Imagery on Wikipedia.

References[edit | edit source]

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External links[edit | edit source]