It being the end of January as I write this, you’ve probably already had your fill of ‘New Year, New You’ style posts and articles extolling the virtues of total life changes and positive thinking. So I’m not going to write one – you’d only be bored! Instead, I’m going to do the opposite, and tell you to ditch the positive thinking for something far more effective.
Event-simulation vs positive thinking
It turns out that just trying to be positive and visualise nice and happy outcomes doesn’t actually have very much impact upon a person’s ability or motivation to solve the problems that they’re facing. In their book Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath recount an experiment that was done with a group of UCLA students. The students were divided into three groups. All groups were asked to think about a problem that was causing them stress, and all were given some basic instruction on problem solving.
The control group was sent home at this point. The second group, the ‘event-simulation’ group, were asked to visualise how the problem had unfolded. They had to simulate in their mind each step that led to the problem that they were now facing, remembering as far as possible what they had said and done. The third group, the ‘outcome-simulation’ group, were told to visualise how they would feel when the problem was solved. Groups 2 and 3 were then sent home with instructions to repeat the simulation for 5 minutes each day.
After a week, the groups were invited back to the lab in order to see which students had fared best in coping with their problems. The event simulation group members felt more positive about their problems; they had taken more specific actions to solve their problems; they had sought more outside help; they reported feeling like they had learned from the experience.
FM Alexander – positive action, not positive thinking
What fascinated me when I read about this experiment was how much it reminded me of the process that FM Alexander engaged in when he began investigating the causes of the vocal problems that threatened his career. He didn’t just blindly trust the doctor, and he didn’t try to ‘feel more positive’ about getting better. Rather, he asked a fundamental question –
“is it not fair … to conclude that it was something I was doing that evening in using my voice that was the cause of the trouble?”
– went back to his study and thought really hard about exactly when he experienced the vocal difficulties. He made observations, made a hypothesis, and tested it. He didn’t sit around – he thought and then he acted.
We can all do this. We can be like the UCLA students and think back to when the problem we’re experiencing first appeared. We can trace our way through the different actions that affected it. And if we do this, we’ve got solid evidence on which to base our hypotheses and go about finding solutions.
Opening questions we can ask ourselves:
- Is it something that I’m doing in the way I’m going about things that causes the problem?
- When did it first appear?
- Does it get worse at specific times?
- Does it get better at specific times?
- Do I do a little bit of it all the time, or is it something that is completely specific to one activity or context?
I’m sure you can think of other questions that might be useful!
So, at the risk of sounding like a grump, try ditching positive thinking and replace it with ‘event-simulation’ thinking instead. And let me know what you discover.
, Heath, C. & Heath, D., Made to Stick, London, Random House, 2007, pp.210-211.
 Alexander, F.M., The Use of the Self, London, Orion, 2001, p.25. Author’s italics.
Image courtesy of MR LIGHTMAN at FreeDigitalPhotos.net