Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Imagery and Optimism as Ingredients of Success

Credit: Jasmine ParkerWellcome Images
In the last couple of days I further elaborated my thoughts on the success project, and on ways my research questions can be addressed in collaboration with the other potential team members.

On Monday, as part of a public engagement event I organised for the Arts & Science Festival in Birmingham, I heard a talk by Amy Hardy on imagery that touched on many aspects of my interest in success.

She talked about imagining supports both memory construction and forward planning, and she discussed several examples of the costs and benefits of imagery. Some of her examples, the use of imagery to improve academic performance or performance in elite sports, and the use of imagery in cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) in the context of post-traumatic stress, are cases in which the way we use imagery helps us overcome obstacles and achieve the results we want to achieve.

When I am thinking about a talk I need to deliver to a tough audience, imagining how giving the talk will be like before it takes place will make me less nervous and more confident, improving my performance. Similarly, it has been shown that elite sportspeople improve their performance in competitive events when they imagine the race or the match in advance of competing. The key is to focus on the process, not the outcome. Imagining the event is part of the preparation for it. It is conducive to success.

The example Amy used when talking about CBT was really interesting. A female client who had been attacked by gangs in the recent past had a recurring image of menacing people around her and this gave her great anxiety as she was thinking: "I will be harmed, I have no control." There was some discussion about how to make the image less upsetting. The client was not comfortable with imagining fighting back, as she thought this might bring retaliation and more danger. So the decision was that she would try to imagine the people around her shrinking and becoming less menacing. She regained a sense of control over her experience in this way.

This nicely leads me to introducing the other thing that happened to me and got me thinking about success. On Tuesday I heard that I obtained a 12-month Fellowship (20%) as part of a multi-disciplinary project on Hope and Optimism, funded by the Templeton Foundation, and managed by the universities of Cornell and Notre Dame in the States. When looking back at the application and planning the next steps, I realised that my interest in the optimism bias could be reinterpreted in terms of attempting to define the sense of agential success that the optimism bias allegedly promotes.

The "optimism bias" is a general phrase that includes positive illusions and self-enhancing beliefs (e.g. the belief that we are in control of external events that are quite independent of us, or the belief that we are better than average with respect to attractiveness, performance, talent, intelligence, or moral behaviour), and excessively rosy predictions about our future (e.g. the belief that we will not be diseased or divorced later in life). The empirical literature consistently shows that the optimism bias is epistemically bad (that is, our beliefs are not well supported by evidence and are often false), but psychologically good (that is, being optimistic makes us happier and more successful).

Indeed, many have linked optimistic thinking to mental health and realistic thinking to mental illness (especially anxiety and depression). As in the case of the woman trying to overcome upsetting images, key skills seem to be the capacity to seize the opportunity to control events that matter to us and the capacity to respond to difficulties by being prepared for them. These skills are not miles away from the "mental toughness" that elite sportspeople need to manifest in order to succeed. This might in part explain why rehearsing things in our head before they happen is good: we anticipate challenges when we imagine the event, and are more prepared for such challenges when they present themselves for real.

In the fellowship that will be funded by the Templeton grant I want to ask what the optimism bias is. Is it selected by evolution? Is it acquired? Is it a general tendency to think in certain way? Is it an instance of irrationality? What are its costs and benefits? This will be useful groundwork. But during the Hub residency, I will want to think more carefully at the implications of the optimism bias for agential success, and I expect that the answer won't be straight-forward. What I would like to investigate with the help of the others is what optimism means for mental health, what type of preparedness works, and how it can be achieved. (This I believe links very well to Michael's interest in the importance of loss of control in compromised mental health across different diagnoses).

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