Action Beats Visualization to Improve Performance

Richard Wiseman

Richard Wiseman of University of Hertfordshire, and a magician before becoming a psychologist, debunked the notion that visualizing desired outcomes achieves results more effectively than direct action in Rip It Up: The radically new approach to changing your life: The Simple Idea That Changes Everything

Citing research by Lien Pham at the University of California, who asked student volunteers to visualize earning a high grade in an upcoming exam or to visualize adopting better study habits.
Pham reported that students who visualized the outcome of a high grade actually received poorer outcomes that those who visualized a better process to achieve a higher grade.

Similarly, Gabriele Oettingen of New York University asked students to record the duration of fantasies about leaving college and starting a “dream job”.
She found that students who spent more time imagining these positive outcomes, but had lower expectations of actually achieving these goals received fewer job offers and lower starting salaries.

Wiseman uses these findings to argue that action rather than imagined rehearsal, fantasy or visualization leads to successful performance outcomes.

Napoleon Bonaparte

This principle was implied by Napoleon Bonaparte more than two centuries ago as he anticipated battle: On s’engage et puis on voit, translated as “You commit yourself; and then, you see”

In the 1880s, William James, brother of novelist Henry James and considered “The Father of American Psychology,” asserted that action precedes emotional experience: “You do not run from a bear because you are afraid of it, but rather become afraid of the bear because you run from it.”

William James

This notion contrasts popular concepts, which led to numerous books encouraging people to change their thinking to change their behaviors and feelings.

Since the 1970s, research has focused on whether changing behavior can change feelings.
To test this relationship, James Laird of Clark University asked volunteers to create an angry expression by drawing down their eyebrows and clenching their teeth and to create a happy expression by drawing back the corners of the mouth.

James Laird

Participants reported feeling significantly happier when they forced their faces into smiles, and much angrier when they were clenching their teeth.
“Acting ‘as-if’ and “faking it until you make it” are examples of initiating behaviors to drive emotional and attitudinal change.

Wiseman offers ten behavioral modifications that can lead to feeling better and improved performance.


  • Happiness: Smile as widely as possible, extend eyebrow muscles slightly upward, and hold for 20 seconds.
  • Willpower: Tense muscles –  Make a fist, contract biceps or press thumb and first finger together
  • Health Eating: Eat with non-dominant hand to increase “mindful” awareness of eating, based on research by Neal, Wood, Wu & Kurlander
  • Persistence: Sit up straight, cross your arms, from research by Ron Friedman of University of Rochester.
    He found that volunteers who sat up straight and crossed arms persisted in working to solve challenging problems nearly twice as long as volunteers who didn’t assume this posture
  • Confidence: Adopt expanded chest posture
    Sitting down, lean back, look up, and interlock your hands behind your head.
    Standing up, place your feet flat on the floor, push your shoulders back, and your chest forward.
  • Negotiation Effectiveness: Use soft chairs
    Joshua Ackerman of the MIT Sloan School of Management conducted simulated negotiations for a used car, and found that volunteers who sat on soft chairs were more flexible in their negotiations and likely to pay higher prices than those who sat on firm chairs.
  • Persuasion: Nod
    Gary Wells of Iowa State University reported that when volunteers nodded their heads, they were more easily able to learn and retain information with which they didn’t agree or that wasn’t true.
  • Love: Open up
    Robert Epstein of the Cambridge Centre for Behavioral Studies found that eye contact, self-disclosure, sharing vulnerability increase perceived liking, loving, and closeness.


  • Procrastination: Start for Five Minutes – Do the task for five minutes, and ask yourself if you want to stop or continue at the end of the time.
    Often, it is easy to continue after 5 minutes.
    If not, stop and begin again for 5 minutes several hours later.
  • Guilt: Wash your hands
    Chen-Bo Zhong of the University of Toronto found that volunteers who carried out a perceived immoral act, then cleaned their hands with an antiseptic wipe felt significantly less guilty than others who didn’t wash

These varied streams of research support the call for intentional action over contemplation to improve mood and initiate positive behavior changes.

-*What counterarguments would you offer to Wiseman?

See related post on “bias for action”:


5 thoughts on “Action Beats Visualization to Improve Performance

  1. Jennifer Hartnett-Henderson

    Kathryn, you have an amazing ability to knit together various research into a cohesive story. Nicely done! As for myself, when I get stuck, my “action” step is to just do the next thing. Another piece of advice that has been on my mind is one to “take your ambitions seriously”. Even small actions provide valuable feedback on direction and velocity. Thanks again, Jennifer Hartnett-Henderson

  2. kathrynwelds Post author

    Thank you, Jennifer, for sharing your approach to getting active when there are obstacles.

    I was reminded of David K. Reynolds’ books that introduced action-based approaches adapted from Japanese “therapies” developed by Morita.
    Reynolds illuminated another approach, Naikan, and synthesized the two into action-education called Constructive Living (CL), which summarizes methods to act realistically and thoughtfully.
    CL’s action focus emphasizes accepting reality as it is and feelings as they are experienced, focusing on purposes, and doing what needs doing to achieve these purposes.
    CL’s appreciation element helps to increase understanding of past and present situations and to appreciate the support we receive from others.

    Reynolds introduced these ideas to the U.S. more than twenty-five years ago, and Wiseman synthesized social science research that supports his recommendation of “mindful action.”

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