In Solution-Focused practice we ask clients to visualize their perfect future, usually by asking the “Miracle Question”. Research has demonstrated that visualization does not work to help people change. Doesn’t this result invalidate a very important tool of SF practitioners?

This is the question that we are going to answer in this post.

First of all, let’s see what research has shown so far.

According to some studies, visualizing a perfect future, where all your goals have been achieved, is:
a) ineffective to help people change
b) effective for feeling good.


a) ineffective to help people change
In a study by Lien Pham and Shelley Taylor at the University of California, students were asked to visualize themselves getting a high grade in an important mid-term exam; they were then asked to keep track of the amount of hours they studied. Compared to a control group of students, the experiment subjects ended up studying less and getting worse grades.
Gabriele Oettingen & colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania conducted  several studies about entertaining positive fantasies. The result: those who have more positive fantasies do worse than those who have negative fantasies. For example: obese women taking part in a weight-loss program were asked to imagine how they would behave in different tempting situations related to food, e.g. being tempted by ice cream at a friend’s house. The women who had more positive visualizations (e.g. “I would not budge, I would just ignore the ice cream, keep chit chatting and be good”) lost on average, after a year, 26 pounds LESS that those with more negative visualizations (e.g. “I would sit there and feed my face with the ice cream”).  Oettingen found that the same negative effect of entertaining positive fantasies applies in the realm of romantic relationships. hip replacement surgery and career success (e.g., in a two-year follow-up, among Oettinger’s students who, as seniors, were asked how often they fantasized about getting a dream job, those who fantasized the most about it had submitted fewer job applications, received a lower number of job offers and had lower salaries than the others).
Why visualizing a positive outcome does not help is not clear; professor Richard Wiseman, in his book 59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot, speculates that subjects who fantasize positive outcomes are either not prepared for the inevitable setbacks they might encounter in their path towards their goals or they indulge in the fantasy and so are less likely to actually do something to make the fantasy real.

But wait! There is more!!
It turns out that “event-simulation” is better than “outcome simulation”.
Some UCLA students were divided into 3 groups: a control group, an “event-simulation” group and an “outcome simluation” group (study described here, p.210-211).
They were all asked to think about a problem that was “stressing them out” and they were all given some generic instructions about problem-solving. Then the “control group” was sent home. The “event-simulation” group was asked to visualize how the 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, where you were”. The “outcome-simulation” group was asked instead to visualize a positive outcome: “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.
The “event-simulation” group did much better: by the first day they had a positive mood boost compared to the other groups; a week later, they were more likely to have taken action to solve the problem, to have sought advice and support from others; they were also more likely to report growth and learning.

…mmmm… the evidence for visualization as a tool for change seems to converge on one result… it does NOT work.

b) effective for feeling good.

There is however a silver lining in all this research: outcome visualization does work in making people feel better. Laura King at Southern Methodist University had subjects write about their ideal future, i.e. a future where all had gone as well as could reasonably be expected and in which all their aspirations had been met. Compared to a group that was asked to write about a negative event that happened to them and a control group what was asked to write about their plans, those who elaborated on their perfect future ended up significantly happier than those in other groups.

So were does all this research leave us?
Should we throw away the Miracle Question and the concept of “preferred future”?

No.
And here is why.

As usual, it is all in the details.

The kind of visualization investigated in the above mentioned studies is very different from visualizing a preferred future, as it is understood in SF practice.
In SF practice, clients are asked to imagine their problems have been miraculously solved. In a way, this is an “outcome-based” suggestion – clients’ goals have been met, they made it.
However, this is just the first part of the “Miracle Question”.
This part has value: as demonstrated by the research mentioned above, visualizing the perfect future does make people feel better – it boosts positive moods. And we know that when people are in a good mood, they think better, they are more creative and they make better decisions – this is the core of the “broaden and build theory” put forward by Barbara Fredrickson. I am not the first one to make this connection: see the excellent article by Carey Glass published in the May 2009 issue of InterAction Journal.

Then there is the second part of the “Miracle Question”.
As Insoo Kim Berg and Peter De Jong remarked, the “Miracle Question” is just an opening gambit – the SF practitioner needs then to exploit the impact of the question with a proper follow-up.
The proper follow-up is, for all intent and purposes, an “event-simulation”: clients are asked what the first small signs are that tell them a miracle happened. They are invited to go through the “day after the miracle” focusing on small, concrete, observable specific behaviors.

Clients are not asked to elaborate on how great they would feel, they are not encouraged to indulge an escapist fantasy – rather, they are invited to elaborate on the behavioral details that tell them they are feeling great; on how other people would notice; on what they would be doing differently, then. In the study mentioned above, participants in the “event-simulation” condition are asked to notice what they said, what they did, where they where, who was around them. These very same questions are part of the proper follow-up to a Miracle Question – the only difference is that instead of simulating the problem, we are asking clients to simulate the solution (not the outcome – i.e. we are asking clients to describe what they are doing differently that leads them to the desired outcome rather than just describing the desired outcome). Incidentally, “event-simulation” visualizations are even more effective if people see themselves from the perspective of a third person – this is additional scientific support for the SF practice of always introducing a third-party perspective in the follow-up to the Miracle Question, when going through the “day after the miracle” with clients.

Notice another thing. If you clicked on the links above to Oettinger’s papers, you would have noticed that Oettinger and her team made a distinction between expectations and fantasies: study participants with positive expectations but negative fantasies had the best outcomes, while participants with pessimistic expectations but positive fantasies were the ones with the worst outcomes. In this article I am making the case that in SF practice we are NOT asking clients to fantasize; on the other hand, SF practice is all about creating positive expectations, as brilliantly demonstrated by Coert Visser here.

A clue that SF is on the right track in the use of visualization procedures that work is in the solution of the dilemma presented by Prof. Wiseman: how can me use the positive aspects of outcome visualization, i.e. boosting positive moods, without having the negative aspects (less actions taken to actually solve the problem)? Prof. Wiseman’s answer, based again on the research carried out by Oettingen and others: a procedure that involves asking people first “to fantasize about reaching the goal” and “noting the top two benefits that would flow from such an achievement” and then “to reflect on the kind of barriers and problems that they are likely to encounter… and again make note of the top two issues”. Once participants have done that, a sort of back-and-forth movement between fantasy and reality is implemented: people are asked to reflect and to elaborate on their first benefit, and then to think about the biggest hurdle, more specifically what they would do if they encountered the difficulty. True, this is not SF. However, we can appreciate some of the same ingredients and the same dynamic. E.g.: people are asked to elaborate on the benefits, i.e. on how their life would be different once they reach their goals – this is what we do when we ask clients to describe what they would be doing differently once their problem is solved or their goal is reached. Then people are asked to elaborate on reality, e.g. what to do re obstacle X; in SF we ask people what they did in the past that worked re overcoming obstacle X. We can also appreciate the same dynamic: in the work of Oettinger it is a back-and-forth movement between “fantasy about a desired future” and “reflections on present reality”; in SF the movement is between the  “preferred future”and “exceptions in reality”.

That SF is on the right track, i.e. its protocols use  visualization that works, is demonstrated by how a third group of students performed in the mid-term exam in the study carried out by Lien Pham and Shelley Taylor mentioned at the beginning of our article. Remember that one group was asked to visualize themselves as obtaining good grades, while the control group was not asked anything; there was a third group. Participants in this third group were asked to visualize themselves in the process of studying, including details of when, where and how they intended to study. This is the group that had the best outcome: they put in more hours and they got higher grades than any of the other two groups.
So it turns out the best use of visualization is to picture oneself performing successfully rather than just having achieved success.
Isn’t this what we are inviting clients to do when we ask them what they are doing differently in their preferred future?

2 thoughts on “Visualization & Solution-Focused Practice

  1. Thanks for reviewing all of this research. I’d been aware of the research on visualization before reading Dr. Wiseman’s book and only recently learned about Solution Focused Coaching, Consulting Therapy etc. I was thinking along the same lines as you–that the miracle question is helpful precisely because it is followed up with what a person is doing in this “perfect day.” And on just on things being perfect. :)

  2. Thanks for reviewing all of this research. I’d been aware of the research on visualization before reading Dr. Wiseman’s book and only recently learned about Solution Focused Coaching, Consulting Therapy etc. I was thinking along the same lines as you–that the miracle question is helpful precisely because it is followed up with what a person is doing in this “perfect day.” And NOT on just on things being perfect. :)

    [Please delete my previous comment in which I forgot to include the word “NOT” in the last sentence.]

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